Google+ and the Privacy Pit

Google may not have said it publicly, but its Google+ social network was deemed a Facebook rival from the very start. Now, as more elements of the Google+ experience reveal themselves, it's beginning to look like Google's push for social isn't just about taking on Facebook and Twitter, but changing its own positioning and strategy on public sharing. With the Picasa and Blogger brands under threat, private profiles facing the chop and +1 buttons spreading across the web, is the "Google+ vs. Facebook" showdown hype masking a potentially more significant rebalancing of public vs. private?

Google quietly confirmed earlier that those users who didn't convert their private profiles into public ones would see them deleted at the end of this month. "The purpose of Google Profiles is to enable you to manage your online identity" the search giant argued, "using Google Profiles to help people find and connect with you online is how the product is best used." Picasa and Blogger aren't being axed, but they are reportedly being pulled closer into the Google+ ecosystem.

If anything, Google+ feels like the vanguard of an all-out push on privacy, and where users' comfort levels lie. It's not just what you post on Google+ itself, and the circles to which you publish – in addition to the weight your opinion may lend to Google's ad partners – but Google's existing role in so many peoples' internet habits.

Right now, the average internet user looking for a little privacy has a few simple tools at their disposal. Most browsers offer a "private mode" which, though colloquially referred to as "porn mode," also makes for an easy way to bypass search histories, cookies and other records when you're checking your online banking or other tasks. Now, private modes have never promised to mask your internet activity from sites themselves or your ISP, but it can still come as something of a surprise when, with Google+ logged-in in the background, search results are flagged with "you visited this page on XX" even when you believed you were browsing "privately."

Perhaps that's a good thing: showing users that, no matter what steps they believe they're taking to remain clandestine, in fact they're leaving a trail a mile wide. For every one person so educated, however, how many will continue their surfing, blithely unaware that Google is keeping an eye on everything they encounter? Meanwhile, what you post on Google+ gets indexed in the company's search results, too.

That's not to say that Google+ ignores privacy altogether, nor that it's closed and, as with Blogger and Picasa getting absorbed, turning into a walled-garden. Google has already said that its Hangouts multi-user video conferencing system will be opened up to third-party clients, and there's a developer API in the works which should allow other software to hook into Google+, further cementing its pivotal position at the center of many peoples' online lives.

Those lives are likely to increasingly focus on the public rather than the private. In shifting away from the binary open/locked profile choice of Twitter, and the unduly fiddly grouping system on Facebook, Google+ opens the door to a sliding scale of privacy, one that users are likely to find themselves gradually easing along from the closed to the open. All-or-nothing is intimidating; progressively seeing the benefits – in terms of engagement, at least – of slowly opening up makes you more likely to continue to do so.

By making the tools with which granular access can be defined more straightforward and more flexible than either Facebook or Twitter can manage, Google is positioning itself as the versatile alternative. That could well make it a more popular launch-pad for people's digital lives, especially given the number who already have Google as their browser homepage. Google+, like most social networking services, is simply more enjoyable and involving when you're connecting with more rather than less people.

Google's apparent goal is to better educate itself about you, the user. That's tricky if your online life is spread across multiple services and platforms, perhaps with different usernames and login details too. For you, Google+ is the social wrapper around your blog, your photo gallery, your search history and your video and IM chat. For Google, it's the bait that encourages you – either passively, by the word-of-mouth appeal of a new, high-profile service to which membership is artificially limited, or actively, by deleting support for private services altogether – to consolidate under one account, giving the search giant a far more complete picture with which to tailor its advertising and promotion. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but anybody with even half an eye on privacy might concede that Google's ubiquity could make it even more of a black hole for personal information than Facebook ever has been.