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Friday, February 26, 2010

Google: What's the Buzz about?

Parents and critics alike are voicing their disapproval over the latest fad when it comes to social networking and the social responsibility on behalf of service providers. The buzz is about Buzz, the new online social networking tool that has been automatically integrated into Google’s web-based email program, Gmail. The loudest voices of criticism are aimed at user privacy and child safety concerns.

Google Buzz is a new social networking and messaging tool (think Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.) from Google. Users can share links, photos, videos, status messages and comments organized in "conversations" and visible in the user's inbox. Buzz allows users to choose whether to “share” these conversations publicly with the world (and I do mean the world, this is the World Wide Web after all) or privately to a group of friends each time they post. The goal of this new service is to help bridge the gap between work and leisure, but the service and its integration have been strongly criticized for taking insufficient account of user privacy and child safety issues.

As an adult, an Internet user, and a Gmail account holder, I am extremely concerned about my privacy. But I can put my worry to rest by simply turning off the service from my Gmail account settings. It is fairly quick and simple to disable.

As a parent, it’s a whole other story, and rightfully so. Buzz is another potentially dangerous “open door” for strangers, good or bad, to come walking into your child’s life. At the core of this concern for many parents is that children with Gmail accounts may unintentionally share private conversations publicly or start chatting with strangers in the network. A concern that brings into debate that an age that may be appropriate for supervised email use may not be the same age that is appropriate for social networking and publicly shared information of any kind.

The problem is being vigilant and knowing when or how to share this information privately and not publicly, and who is appropriate for child users to “network” with. A serious concern when taking into account that many children may not have the awareness, skills or maturity to handle an online sexual solicitation or a potential groomer (sexual predator) in which they may encounter while using Buzz. This is a warranted and serious concern that needs to be addressed considering approximately one in seven youth online have received a sexual solicitation and 71% reported receiving messages online from someone they don’t know.

We already know that children encounter these situations on sites they willingly sign up for with the intention of socializing, many times with people they don’t know well or at all. It is not new in the world of Web 2.0, but it is rather alarming when this social medium has been thrust upon one unbeknownst to them and unsolicited. In all reality, Google has now signed up child users for another virtual “neighborhood” (and all of its unknown dangers) without the child having to actively engage in registration of any kind and, in addition, their personal information may be shared publicly in certain situations. There in lies the other part of the problem. Publicly shared private information in any forum at any age can be abused. Yes, you can turn Buzz off, but children can easily turn it back on without any parental controls or consent, potentially putting them at risk.

Service providers and parents alike need to acknowledge this as a potential risk to children. Some might say it is a parent’s responsibility to teach conscious email and Internet etiquette. It is, but Google and other service providers must shoulder some of this burden as well in a united effort to keep children safer online. But I suppose additional registration or parental controls within Gmail’s Buzz would be asking for too much?

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