[iDC] Google Buzz and the Surveilance Economy

Christian Fuchs christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
Mon Feb 15 02:23:08 UTC 2010

Google Buzz: Economic Surveillance – Buzz Off! The Problem of Online 
Surveillance and the Need for an Alternative Internet

I wrote this text for a longer paper about online surveillance that will 
be included in the collected volume “The Internet & Surveillance” that I 
am editing together with Kees Boersma, Anders Albrechtslund, and Marisol 
Sandoval as part of the EU COST Action “Living in Surveillance 
Societies”. The book will be published in 2011.

In February 2010, Google introduced a new social networking service 
called Buzz. Buzz is directly connected to GMail, Google’s 
webmail-platform. Google’s introduction of Buzz is an attempt to gain 
importance in the social networking sites-market that has been dominated 
by Facebook and Twitter. In February 2010, Facebook was ranked number 2 
and Twitter number 12 in the list of the most accessed web platforms, 
whereas Google’s own social networking platform Orkut, which is only 
very popular in Brazil, was at number 52. Popular social networking 
platforms attract millions of users, who upload and share personal 
information that provides data about their consumption preferences. 
Therefore commercial social networking sites are keen on storing, 
analyzing, and selling individual and aggregated data about user 
preferences and user behaviour to advertising clients in order to 
accumulate capital. Google is itself a main player in the business of 
online advertising. One can therefore assume that Google considers 
Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that attract many users, as 
competitors, and that as a result of this competitive situation Google 
has introduced Buzz. In 2009, GMail had approximately 150 million users, 
which explains that Google integrated Buzz into GMail in order to start 
from a solid foundation of potential users.

Buzz supports the following communicative functions: the creation of 
postings that are shared with contacts, the sharing of images and 
videos, commenting and evaluating others’ Buzz posts, the forwarding of 
Twitter messages to a Buzz account, linking and integrating images 
uploaded to Flickr or Picasa, videos uploaded to YouTube, and posts 
generated on Blogger; the usage of Buzz via mobile phones. Buzz messages 
can either be presented publicly or only to selected groups of 
followers. Each user’s Buzz profile has a list of followers. Users can 
select which Buzz accounts they want to follow. Buzz mobile phone 
messages include geo-tags that display the current location of users. 
Buzz posts of users who are geographically located nearby a user and 
information about nearby sites, shops, restaurants, etc can be displayed 
on mobile phones. Buzz also recommends postings by others users.

In December 2009, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt commented about online 
privacy: “If you have something that you do not want anyone to know, 
maybe you should not be doing it in the first place”. This statement is 
an indication that Google or at least its most important managers and 
shareholders do not value privacy very highly. Schmidt’s statement 
implies that he thinks that in the online world, all uploaded 
information and personal data should be available publicly and should be 
usable by corporations for economic ends.

When first installing Buzz, the application automatically generated a 
list of followers for each user based on the most frequent GMail mail 
contacts. The standard setting was that this list of followers was 
automatically visible in public. This design move resulted in heavy 
criticism of Google in the days following the launch of Buzz. Users and 
civil rights advocates argued that Buzz threatens the privacy of users 
and makes contacts that users might want to keep private available in 
public. Google reacted to public criticism and changed some of the 
standard settings of Buzz on February 13, 2010. Some changes were made 
to the auto-follow option, so that now a dialogue is displayed that 
shows which users Buzz suggests as followers. But still all suggested 
followers are automatically activated, which does not make this solution 
an opt-in version of the follow feature. Google also said that Buzz 
would no longer automatically connect publicly available Picasa and 
Google Reader items to the application. Also an options menu was 
announced that allows users to hide their contact list from their public 
Google profiles. The problem here is again that this was planned as an 
opt-out solution, and not as an opt-in option. From a privacy-enhancing 
perspective, opt-in solutions are preferable to opt-out solutions 
because they give users more control over what applications are allowed 
to do with their data. However, it is clear that opt-out solutions are 
rather unpopular design options for many Internet corporations because 
they tend to reduce the number of potential users that are subject to 
advertising-oriented data surveillance.

At the Google Buzz launch event on February 9, 2010, the presenters were 
keen on stressing the advantages that Buzz poses for users. Bradley 
Horwitz, Google vice president of product marketing, spoke of Buzz as “a 
Google approach to sharing” and a tool that will “help you manage your 
attention better”. There was no talk about potential disadvantages. When 
in the question and answer section of the event, the first question that 
came about was about privacy issues, Buzz product manager Todd Jackson 
answered: “There is a lot of controls in there for users. […] There are 
ways to control the settings you are revealing to other people”. Four 
days later, following a public discussion about the surveillance and 
privacy threats of Buzz, Google sounded much less optimistic. On the 
Google GMail blog, Todd Jackson wrote: “We’ve heard your feedback loud 
and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we’ve been 
working around the clock to address the concerns you’ve raised”.

Google’s economic strategy is to gather data about users that utilize 
different Google applications in different everyday situations. The more 
everyday situations can be supported by Google applications, the more 
time users will spend online with Google, so that more user data will be 
available to Google, which allows the company to better analyze usage 
and consumer behaviour. As a result, more and more precise user data and 
aggregated data can be sold to advertising clients that provide the 
users with personalized advertising that targets them in all of these 
everyday situations with information about potential consumption 
choices. The introduction of ever more applications does primarily serve 
economic ends that are realized by large-scale user surveillance. As 
more and more people access the Internet from their mobile phones, the 
number of times and the time spans users are online as well as the 
number of access points and situations in which users are online 
increase. Therefore supplying applications that are attractive for users 
in all of these circumstances (such as waiting for the bus or the 
underground, travelling on the train or the airplane, going to a 
restaurant, concert, or movie, visiting friends, attending a business 
meeting, etc), promises that users spend more time online with 
applications supplied by specific companies such as Google, which allows 
these companies to present more advertisements that are more 
individually targeted to users, which in turn promises more profit for 
the companies. We can therefore say that there is a strong economic 
incentive for Google’s and other companies’ introduction of new 
Internet- and mobile Internet-applications.

Google Buzz is part of Google’s empire of economic surveillance. It 
gathers information about user behaviour and user interests in order to 
store, assess, and sell this data to advertising clients. These 
surveillance practices are legally guaranteed by the Buzz privacy 
policy, which says for example: “When you use Google Buzz, we may record 
information about your use of the product, such as the posts that you 
like or comment on and the other users who you communicate with. This is 
to provide you with a better experience on Buzz and other Google 
services and to improve the quality of Google services. […] If you use 
Google Buzz on a mobile device and choose to view “nearby” posts, your 
location will be collected by Google” (Google Buzz Privacy Policy, 
February 14, 2010).

Google uses DoubleClick – a commercial advertising server owned by 
Google since 2007 that collects and networks data about usage behaviour 
on various websites, sells this data, and helps providing targeted 
advertising – for networking the data it holds about its users with data 
about these users’ browsing and usage behaviour on other web platforms. 
There is only an opt-out option from this form of networked economic 
surveillance. Opt-out options are always rather unlikely to be used 
because in many cases they are hidden inside of long privacy and usage 
terms and are therefore only really accessible to knowledgeable users. 
Many Internet corporations avoid opt-in advertising solutions because 
such mechanisms drastically reduce the potential number of users 
participating in advertising. The Google privacy policy says in this 
context: “Google uses the DoubleClick advertising cookie on AdSense 
partner sites and certain Google services to help advertisers and 
publishers serve and manage ads across the web. You can view, edit, and 
manage your ads preferences associated with this cookie by accessing the 
Ads Preferences Manager. In addition, you may choose to opt out of the 
DoubleClick cookie at any time by using DoubleClick’s opt-out cookie” 
(Gogle Privacy Policy, February 14, 2010).

Google’s online product advertising for Buzz says: “The first thing we 
all do when we find something interesting is share it. More and more of 
this kind of sharing takes place online. Google Buzz is a new way to 
share updates, photos, videos, and more. […] When you are out in the 
real world, you usually want to say something about where you are. Buzz 
makes this easy”. Sharing information with friends and to a certain 
extent with the public is surely an important feature of everyday 
communication that allows humans to stay in touch and to make new 
contacts. But Google only presents potential advantages of Buzz and does 
not say a single word about potential disadvantages. Do people really 
want to share vast amounts of private data and location data not only 
with their friends, but also with Google? Can Google be considered as a 
friend of all humans, or doesn’t it rather accumulate power that can 
also cause great harm to humans? Do people really always want to tell 
others where they currently are? Are people really interested in sharing 
their location data not only with selected friends, but also with 
Google? It is a natural corporate behaviour that Google only presents 
potential advantages of its applications in its marketing videos, ads, 
and events. But by doing so, it creates a one-dimensional picture of 
online reality that conveys the impression that we live in a world 
without power structures, in which all humans always benefit from 
corporate practices. But the great financial crisis has made clear to 
many citizens that corporations cannot always be trusted and are prone 
to act in ways that do not benefit all, but only a small group of investors.

Buzz is not the only example of Google-enhanced surveillance. Google has 
developed Goggles, which is an image-recognition software that 
identifies objects that people take pictures of by mapping these objects 
with Google’s image database and provides information about these 
objects. If this application were linked to image data about humans, it 
would allow people to identify and obtain information about humans, who 
they see on the street by taking a picture of them and linking this 
image to Google in real time. This would on the one hand allow humans to 
intrude the privacy of others in public spaces by identifying their 
personality and it would allow Google to gather, assess, provide, and 
potentially sell real time data about the physical location of millions 
of people.

Why is data surveillance for economic surveillance by Google 
applications such as Buzz problematic? One could argue that Google 
provides a free service to users and that in return it should be allowed 
to access, store, analyze, and use personal data and Internet usage 
behaviour. But the problem is that the power relations between Google 
and its users are not symmetric. In December 2008, Google controlled 57% 
of the online advertising market. A Google monopoly in online 
advertising poses several threats (for a general account of the threats 
of information monopolies see Fuchs 2008, 164-171):

* Ideological power threat: Online advertising presents certain 
realities as important to users and leaves out those realities that are 
non-corporate in character or that are produced by actors that do not 
have enough capital in order to purchase online advertisements. An 
online advertising monopoly therefore advances one-dimensional views of 

* Political power threat: In modern society, money is a form of 
influence on political power. The concentration of online advertising 
therefore gives Google huge political power.

* Control of labour standards and prices: An online advertising monopoly 
holds the power to set industry-wide labour standards and prices. This 
can pose disadvantages for workers and consumers.

* Economic centralization threat: An economic monopoly controls large 
market shares and thereby deprives other actors of economic opportunities.

* Surveillance threat: Targeted online advertising is based on the 
collection of vast amounts of personal user data and usage behaviour 
that is stored, analyzed, and passed on to advertising customers. Modern 
societies are stratified, which means that certain groups and 
individuals compete with others for the control of resources, consider 
others as their opponents, benefit from certain circumstances at the 
expense of others, etc. Therefore information about personal preferences 
and individual behaviour can cause harm to individuals if it gets into 
the hand of their opponents or others who might have an interest in 
harming them. Large-scale data gathering and surveillance in a society 
that is based on the principle of competition poses certain threats to 
the well-being of all citizens. Therefore special privacy protection 
mechanisms are needed. All large collections of data pose the threat of 
being accessed by individuals who want to harm others. If such 
collections are owned privately, then access to data might be sold 
because there is an economic interest in accumulating money. Humans who 
live in modern societies have an inherent interest in controlling which 
personal data about them is stored and is available to whom because they 
are facing systemic threats of being harmed by others. Large collections 
of personal information pose under the given modern circumstances the 
threat that humans can be harmed because their foes, opponents, or 
rivals in private or professional life can potentially gain access to 
such data. Since 9/11, there has been an extension and intensification 
of state surveillance that is based on the argument that security from 
terrorism is more important than privacy. But state surveillance is 
prone to failure, and the access of state institutions to large online 
collections about citizens (as for example enabled by the USA PATRIOT 
Act) not only poses the possibility for detecting terrorists, but also 
the threat that a large number of citizens is considered as potential 
criminals or terrorists without having committed any crimes and the 
threat that the state obtains a huge amount of information about the 
private lives of citizens that the latter consider worth protecting (as 
for example: political views, voting decisions, sexual preferences and 
relationships, friendship statuses).

Overall, the introduction of Google Buzz shows that there is an 
antagonism of privacy protection and economic surveillance interests on 
the contemporary Internet that is dominated by commercial interests. It 
might be time for thinking more about strengthening alternative Internet 
platforms and the potentials for constructing an alternative Internet.

Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and society: social theory in the 
information age. New York: Routledge.

Source: http://fuchs.uti.at/313/

- - -
Priv.-Doz. Dr. Christian Fuchs
Associate Professor
Unified Theory of Information Research Group
ICT&S Center
University of Salzburg
Sigmund Haffner Gasse 18
5020 Salzburg
christian.fuchs at sbg.ac.at
Phone +43 662 8044 4823
Personal Website: http://fuchs.uti.at
Research Group: http;//www.uti.at
Editor of
tripleC - Cognition, Communication, Co-Operation | Open Access Journal 
for a Global Sustainable Information Society
Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and Society: Social Theory in the 
Information Age. New York: Routledge.

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