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Bennett Haselton: Google+ To Gmail Controversy Missing the Point 244

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
Bennett Haselton writes "Google created controversy by announcing that Google+ users will now be able to send email to Gmail users even without having those Gmail users' email addresses. I think this debate misses the point, because it's unlikely to create a deluge of unsolicited email to Gmail users, as long as Google can throttle outgoing messages from Google+ users and terminate abusive accounts. The real controversy should be over the fact that Google+ users can search a public database of the names of all Gmail users in the first place. And limiting the ability of Google+ users to write to those Gmail accounts, won't do anything to address that." Read below to see what Bennett has to say.

To begin with, remember that on Facebook (which I no longer use, but which I keep up with) does allow you to search for other members' names and send them messages even if they have not yet accepted your friend request. Facebook users are generally not shy when it comes to complaining about problems with the site, but I've never heard Facebook users complaining about junk messages from strangers. (It's true that if you get a message from a user outside of your friends list, it gets routed to the "Other" folder of your Facebook inbox. But similarly, Google says that messages from strangers on Google+ will get routed to a Gmail user's "Social" tab of the inbox.)

So I expect the amount of actual unsolicited emails from Google+ users to Gmail users to be almost a complete non-issue, for the same reason that it's not an issue on Facebook. I assume the reason that Facebook users get so few junk messages, is that Facebook can limit the number of outgoing messages sent per day by any one account (although I don't know what that limit is), and can shut down accounts that are reported for abuse. Yes, a spammer could continually create new accounts to send more messages, but if you create too many Facebook accounts from the same IP address, and each account created from that IP address gets flagged for abuse, Facebook might start disallowing new accounts created from that IP. You could switch your IP address continually, but at a certain point, spammers must have decided that creating disposable Facebook accounts for spamming purposes wasn't worth the trouble, because the simple fact is that they don't do it. So Gmail users are not in danger of buried in spam from Google+ accounts. (By contrast, conventional email spam grew to unmanageable proportions because anybody with an email server could send out millions of messages per day, unless their provider cut them off.)

On the other hand, I think we should be more concerned about the fact that anyone who creates a Gmail address automatically has a Google+ account created for them. This doesn't just mean that any of Google's claims about the "number of Google+ users" are inflated, if they're including everyone who signs up for a Gmail account. (That's a valid complaint, but it's between Google and their shareholders, since the rest of us don't need to care how many users Google+ actually has.) More importantly, it means that all of those users become part of a public database that is searchable by name.

As a test, I went to Gmail.com and created a new user account, entering the first and last name "Zanzibar Higglesbrain" which I figured was probably unique. (Fan fiction authors: knock yourselves out.) Then I logged back in under my own Google+ account, went to the people search page, searched for "Zanzibar Higglesbrain", and found 1 match. (I didn't even need the exact name -- entering "Zanzibar Hi" into the people search box, listed Mr. Higglesbrain among the results.)

Now, when I created the Higglesbrain account, how much up-front notice was I given that I would be adding myself to a public database? I went through the normal signup process, viewed through the eyes of a novice -- after typing in Gmail.com, I was redirected to a page on accounts.google.com with the innocuous title "Create your Google Account", and entered my personal information. On the next page is the somewhat confusingly worded message (I've also posted a screen shot here):

How you'll appear

Choose how you appear across Google by creating a public Google+ profile.
Include a photo - you can update it at any time.
[Link:] Add a photo
[Button:] Next step

This message is misleadingly worded because the phrase "by creating a public Google+ profile" implies that's something you can do, optionally, if you want to. It doesn't really disclose the fact that the profile is being created for you as a side effect of signing up for Gmail. The wording might be interpreted, rather, to mean that your profile will only be created if you upload a photo (which is not the case; your profile gets created regardless). And besides -- what if the user is a novice who went to Gmail.com because they saw all their friends using Gmail.com addresses, and have never even heard of "Google+"? If they haven't consented to their name being added to a publicly searchable database, it shouldn't be their responsibility to know what "Google+" is, so that they can object to their name being listed there.

After you click the "Next step" button, the final page in the account creation process says:

Welcome, [firstname]

Your new email address is [address]

Thanks for creating a Google Account. Use it to subscribe to channels on YouTube, video chat for free, save favorite places on Maps, and lots more.

Note what's conspicuously missing from this message: It doesn't mention Google+ at all, much less the fact that you have unwittingly "joined" it, where other users can find you.

I can think of a couple of scenarios where a user might object to their name being listed in a searchable user database, apart from just "on general principles". If you have a stalker in your past, and they find your name on Google+, it confirms for them that you're probably still alive, that you're probably active on the Internet, and that you're still going by the name that they knew you under. Or, if you have a very unique first name, anyone who knows it could search on Google+ to find your last name, even if you didn't want them to. Similarly, if you have a very unique last name, someone could use the search feature to find the names of your children and other relatives with the same last name, at least those of them that are using Gmail.

And this lack of user consent is a more serious problem on Gmail/Google+ than on Facebook, because most Facebook users create a profile with the general expectation that other Facebook users can find them. Some Facebook users had chosen not to make their accounts searchable -- and Facebook justifiably received a firestorm of criticism for removing that feature and forcing those users' profiles to become publicly searchable after all -- but the overwhelming majority of Facebook users had joined with the understanding that their profiles could be found by others. That's not a valid assumption about Gmail users -- if someone creates a Gmail.com email address, there's no reason to think that they believed they were joining a publicly searchable name database.

Google has tried to mollify people's concerns about emails from strangers on Google+, by specifying that anyone not already in your Google+ circles will only be able to send one message to your Gmail inbox, and will not be able to send more messages until you reply. But this misunderstands the privacy implications in, for example, the stalker scenario. If a stalker ex "Bob" really did find your name on Google+, they might try to tease out a reply by creating a Google+ account under the name of a friend "Alice" you and your ex had in common, and sending you a generic "How have you been doing lately?" message. Since that message probably won't raise any alarm bells (the message isn't asking for anything like a current address or phone number), you might not realize that just by replying, you've already done the damage (the stalker now knows your email address, plus the fact that it's still an actively used account).

Similarly, although you can modify your Gmail settings to prevent strangers on Google+ from messaging you, the ability to change a setting to fix a problem only helps a user if the user realizes when the problem is happening. For example, if the problem resulting from this new feature switch were a deluge of spam from strangers on Google+, then more and more users would get frustrated and look for information about how to stop the flood of spam, and most of them would find out about this setting and switch it off. But for combatting the stalker problem, this setting is useless, because by definition if a stalker finds you on Google+ (and tricks you into replying to a message and revealing your email address), you wouldn't know about that problem until the damage has already been done, at which point it's too late to solve it by changing a setting.

The only way to avoid this risk to people's privacy, would be for Google to ask Gmail users at the time they create a Gmail account: "Do you also want to create a Google+ account, yes or no? This means you will have a publicly searchable profile, and people who know your name will be able to find you." Some people would like to be found, some people would rather not be, and this would allow them to sort themselves properly.

But instead, we have an untold number of zombie Google+ accounts created whenever someone signs up for Gmail, which serve no purpose except to make it possible to find people who never confirmed that they wanted to be found -- all most likely for the reason given by Chris Taylor at Mashable, so that "Larry Page gets to claim increased Google+ user numbers on the next quarterly earnings call."

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Bennett Haselton: Google+ To Gmail Controversy Missing the Point

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  • Bennett Haselton? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:12PM (#45940139)

    Who is Bennett Haselton, and why do we care what he says?

    • by tomhath (637240) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:28PM (#45940313)
      If you want to know who he is, just look him up on Google+
      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Monday January 13, 2014 @01:00PM (#45940665)

        If you want to know who he is, just look him up on Google+

        Better yet, look him up on Google+ and send him an email. After all, he states that this linking of Google+ and Gmail won't cause an increase of unsolicited email.

        • If you want to know who he is, just look him up on Google+

          Better yet, look him up on Google+ and send him an email. After all, he states that this linking of Google+ and Gmail won't cause an increase of unsolicited email.

          That's going to inconvenience him about as much as spam mail in the spam folder, considering all the e-mail people send is going to be automatically filed away to the social folder. Your post ended up proving his point that people don't actually understand how the feature work.

          I was somewhat pissed off that Google made accepting those e-mails the default in the google+ settings, but I can see why some people would turn it on. In any case, anyone can turn it off.

      • by berashith (222128)

        he was kind enough to sign up with an even more peculiar name if you want to find him . email Zanzibar Higglesbrain to send to his "private" unknown account.

        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          I guess those of us who have gmail and youtube account, were exempted from G+ account creation?

          Youtube has from time to time prompted me to put in for a G+ account, but I just keep refusing.

          By the by...who actually puts their REAL name on there when creating a gmail account?

    • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:59PM (#45940663)

      Look at his past submissions if you want to know.

      Myself, Im partial to the one where he asked whether we REALLY need the 4th and 5th amendments.

      • Sure, abolish privacy for everyone who holds a government position. They are working for the public anyway - aren't they.

    • Seriously, Anonymous Coward wants to know if this account has enough klout to deserve an opinion? If you think that people's insights are only worthwhile because of their notoriety, your using the wrong account.

      Maybe some of us care what he says because he has some good points?

  • Google plus (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sTERNKERN (1290626) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:13PM (#45940141)
    Just make it stop. I go to G-Mail to send mails, I go to Youtube to watch videos. If I wanted to socialize, I would have gone to Twitter/SnapChat/Facebook/MySpace (is there still such a thing?)/SecondLife... Google was famous for it's tools being simple, powerful and not forcing anything on the user. Good old days, eh?
    • Re:Google plus (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TrentTheThief (118302) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:18PM (#45940203)

      I agree with your views. Google has jumped the damned shark.

    • by Andrewkov (140579)

      If I wanted to socialize, I would have gone to Twitter/SnapChat/Facebook/MySpace

      There's the rub (from google's perspective)

      • by Aighearach (97333)

        Most of the businesses I go to are just fine selling me what I want to buy from them, and letting me go elsewhere for whatever I want. Places like Radio Shack that want to try really hard to get my phone number so they can spam me or sell me other crap, those are places I used to shop.

        Nobody wants Google+. We don't want it "free," we don't want it toasted, we don't want it roasted, we don't want it in a tree.
        We don't want it at our doorstep at 3am with a shotgun, we don't want it on a game trail, we don't

    • by houghi (78078)

      I have dropped my Gmail account and have gone to http://gmx.com/ [gmx.com]
      For video upload, I will be using Vimeo instead of Youtube.

      And the sole reason is the push they want to give to Google+ and the sneakiness they use to let you click to be connected to Google+

      Watching video's, I still do. I now use Unique Youtube Skin [userscripts.org] to have a much better layout and not have the mobies play automagically,. so I can open several tabs and watch them one after the other.

    • by Dishevel (1105119)
      I am just wondering how this guy was confused about how putting something on the internet was not 100% private.

      I think he confused himself so that he would have something to write about. As far as I can tell there is no story here.

      Attention! If put a name on the internet people can find it!

      • by Aighearach (97333)

        You're confused because you conflate sending private emails with "putting something on the internet." While it has always been assumed that a few sysadmins were reading your "private" emails, much as the postal inspector might open and re-seal your mail, there is a huge difference between sending a private email and "putting something on the internet."

        Just like there is a difference between walking across my lawn with a package, and dumping the package out on my lawn.

        • by Dishevel (1105119)
          No one is reading your email. None of those people can actually even get your email address. The most they can do is click a link and get an email sent to you. (If you allow it.)
    • by msobkow (48369)

      As soon as the new "feature" was announced, I went into my account and disabled it.

      If I didn't *give* you my email address, I don't want you emailing me.

      But I'm pretty sure I know *why* Google did this instead of letting people use G+ messaging:
      No one was logging in to their G+ accounts, so they weren't seeing messages.

      While technically superior to Facebook, Google+ has virtually no uptake, and all the forced use in the world won't make people like it or use it. Give it up, Google. It's a failure.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:23PM (#45940265)

    One of the reasons i hate Google, along with Facebook and MS and Apple and many other software developers is the forced changes. If this is so good, why not explain your reasoning and allow for an opt-in? Why must we be forced into some sort of change that we don't want or didn't ask for? It's funny because there are so many Google fans and Apple fans and what have you, but these big monolithic software developers don't care who you are or what you want; they'll force changes on you to their own benefit and F you if you don't want it. /sigh. At least hosting a domain isn't all that hard; time to use my own email.

    • Because maintaining a huge amount of different versions and services that all need to work together is extremely difficult and error prone.

      The problem is how often "our new changes are going to be great for you" really means "you don't want this at all". They make sure to couple every benefit with many things that you definitely do not want.

    • Welcome to SaaS (Score:4, Informative)

      by Junta (36770) on Monday January 13, 2014 @01:46PM (#45941189)

      This is the nature of the software as a service beast.

      With traditional software (Windows OS is a good example), you have three choices, embrace the change, discontinue use of the product, or keep using old product and ignore change.

      The 'ignore change' evaporates in software as a service model.

    • by mlts (1038732)

      That is an issue with cloud applications, and SaaS in general. You have no way of reverting back to an earlier version should a new update break things.

      This is one fundamental lesson -- on the Internet, Heinlein may long since have been worm food, but TANSTAAFL is still the rule of the day. Either you pay for the E-mail account directly, or you deal with a lack of privacy.

      The gmail account I have is useful for Android related stuff, but for anything professional, I use an Exchange hosted provider and a cu

      • by number17 (952777)

        That is an issue with cloud applications, and SaaS in general.

        Its a problem with any product you rent such as a car or hotel room, or service that is provided such as TV service or hair salon.

        If they want to upgrade portions of their product/service then you either go with it or find somebody else that provides it.

    • If this is so good, why not explain your reasoning and allow for an opt-in?

      a) it's a free service. pay someone some money and you just might get what you want.
      b) it is opt-in! don't like google+? disable it: https://plus.google.com/downgrade/ [google.com]

    • by swillden (191260)

      If this is so good, why not explain your reasoning and allow for an opt-in?

      Because then the service provider would have to support every single version of their software, forever. Before long users wouldn't have to decide whether or not to accept new features, because there wouldn't be any.

  • by fast turtle (1118037) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:26PM (#45940285) Journal

    It's the easiest solution and works across all of Google if you simply check the god damn box on the profile page to disable listing/indexing your gmail addy by Google and if you didn't do it during the initial setup or soon after Google gave us the dashboard, you deserve what you get

    God damn posting filter - saying I'd posted 47 minutes ago when trying for AC - /. is going to the nuking cockroaches

    • by mythosaz (572040)

      Isn't it easier to just ignore a mail you might get this way, since it's unlikely to end up in a priority inbox unless you've got a relationship with that person on G+ anyway?

      • by Junta (36770)

        Considering the entire gripe was not about unsolicited mail, but that your information in some way is searchable when it previously was not, the solution of ignoring it is not applicable.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by misterooga (1172837)

      Took me a while to get there.

      1.Click on your icon (top right on my browser) to go to Account settings.
      2. Click on Google + Settings
      3. Under Profile (more than half way down), uncheck "Help others discover my profile in search results."
      4. Cross-fingers, because who knows what other options will be added

      • by Obfuscant (592200) on Monday January 13, 2014 @01:05PM (#45940725)

        Took me a while to get there. 1.Click on your icon (top right on my browser) to go to Account settings. 2. Click on Google + Settings

        Wait a minute. You have to use Google+ to set a Gmail account setting? I would never find that link because I deliberately do not use Google+. Yes, this is very easy to opt out of, sure.

        • by Arker (91948) on Monday January 13, 2014 @01:15PM (#45940827) Homepage

          "Wait a minute. You have to use Google+ to set a Gmail account setting? I would never find that link because I deliberately do not use Google+. Yes, this is very easy to opt out of, sure."

          Ding ding ding. This is how screwed up google has gotten. They sign us up for a new service without our consent, then demand we log into it to opt out of stuff we never opted into. And to do that... you have to consent to the TOS.

          It's a neat little trap they have constructed. Do no evil? Hah.

        • by Aighearach (97333)

          No, the G+ one is a different opt-out.

          The gmail one it is a new setting added on the first tab (general), says "Who can email you via your Google+ profile?"

    • This message is misleadingly worded because the phrase "by creating a public Google+ profile" implies that's something you can do, optionally, if you want to.

      That is the source of confusion. By skipping the step, you don't choose how your info is displayed. By creating one (or going through the steps) you get to choose.

      Bennett assumes a literal reading and blames it when it falls short. The intent is to say here is how to control your info.

      The decision to create a shell profile is a different problem, and i

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:26PM (#45940299)

    It seems that Mr. Bennett has truly missed the point. The point is that Google no longer intends to offer anybody a new "Gmail account". Henceforth they only offer a "Google+ account with email features."

    In 2014 you should expect that Google will roll this change to their Google Voice product. They will stop offering a new "Google Voice account" and will only offer new "Google+ account with Hangout voice features". After that they will eventually stop offering new accounts for their other products and only offer "Google+ account with feature".

    Look I don't like the change, but Apple no longer let's you create an Apple email account that isn't also an iTunes account and they have never let you create a FaceTime account that wasn't also an iTunes account.

    In fact a common complaint on Apple forums for years has come from people who originally created separate Apple email and iTunes accounts and desperately want to merge them.

    • by Nerdfest (867930) on Monday January 13, 2014 @01:34PM (#45941035)

      It seems to me they're trying to move away from having gMail as the central account to Google+ being the central account. The problem is that people don't want that because Google+ is another social service (that you don't need to use, but that's what it is.) What they probably should have done is to have a simple Googler Account service that does nothing but contain your basic information and some gommon settings. Gmail, Google+, YouTube, etc are all just service that are associated with a specific Google Account. Peopl feel like they're forced to use Google+ because it's being used as the central coontact point and some want to have nothing to do with it. If you can be emailed via it, I can understand it, especially if this new capability is opt-out, which I think it is.

    • Google no longer intends to offer anybody a new "Gmail account". Henceforth they only offer a "Google+ account with email features."

      this is a prime example of FUD. you should be modded as a troll.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:39PM (#45940427) Journal
    Google has a better revenue model than facebook. It is using that cash flow to out live competition like facebook. Facebook, despite is billion user base, is not creating any steady revenue. Google expects facebook to eventually fold and google+ will step in to fill the void because it would be the only thing with enough resources to fill the gap. It is not unlike Microsoft using its Office/Windows cash cow to outlive its competition. But unlike Microsoft, the switching costs are not very high for gmail users.

    All those slashdotter bemoaning google becoming evil or waxing eloquent about privacy issues or concerned about the victims of stalkers do not form a significant enough chunk of the population to matter. If they were year 2000 would have been the year of Desktop Linux.

  • The Horror! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pumpkin Tuna (1033058) on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:43PM (#45940501)

    My God! It's almost as if they had taken the names, phone numbers and addresses of millions of people and bound them into some sort of large book before distributing said book to everyone's home free of charge! Can you imagine the chaos such a thing might cause???

    • by tgd (2822)

      My God! It's almost as if they had taken the names, phone numbers and addresses of millions of people and bound them into some sort of large book before distributing said book to everyone's home free of charge! Can you imagine the chaos such a thing might cause???

      White pages tended to be limited to your town, or a small part of your town. Not, you know, 500 million people.

        • by tgd (2822)

          That's completely unrelated to the Telco white pages. That's a data mining site like all the other people finders, aggregating public records with equally poor accuracy.

          A quick search shows 90% of the info they have on me in their "teaser" is wrong, and they claim to have my phone number, which they definitely do not. There's a hundred other sites just like that.

          • by mjr167 (2477430)

            Give me your full name and I bet I can figure out what your home address is and that is way more dangerous than an email address. The point is that you don't need that silly book made out of dead trees to find people any more. You can choose not to list your phone number, but your name is on the deed of you house and that is public information.

    • Ha, beat me to it. I was going to mention the phone book too.
    • by Drethon (1445051)
      Yeah, I ended up with a crazy stalker thanks to that...
    • It's been so long ago since I had a land-line account, I can't remember if I was paying $8/month for service plus $6/month to not be listed, or the other way around.

      Either way, it was possible for pay the phone company so that I did *not* show up in the phone book. Which I happily paid, as I'm one of those people with a unique name, and previously had a stalker.

  • I started out with a Youtube account then google gave me other accounts and then it said it wanted to merge accounts it created and now I have multiple gmail, youtube, and g+ accounts and I don't know what just happened.
  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [hmryobemag]> on Monday January 13, 2014 @12:54PM (#45940589) Journal

    On the Gmail account I use on Slashdot, I had my nickname, which should be the only publicly visible name, set to "GameboyRMH." I couldn't leave the First Name and Last Name fields blank (they were separate back then) so I set them to "GameboyRMH" and "The Cool Guy."

    Then one day last year my sister's giggling that I changed my username to "GameboyRMH The Cool Guy." WTF!? Turns out Google decided to expose what was in my real name fields to the public without my consent. At least my caution paid off.

  • How the hell did this make it onto Slashdot. I have asked this question before but this is one of the most narcissistic blowhards to make onto slashdot in a long while.

    Just the way he writes is so condescending so as to make me want to do the opposite of what he says. If he recommends 21% oxygen then I might give serious thought as to switching to argon.

    I think that 90% of us can agree. G+ is a pile of dung being foisted upon us by some MBAs working at google. As for the spam thing. I just got 2 spam ch
  • you've already done the damage (the stalker now knows your email address, plus the fact that it's still an actively used account).

    So stalkers know the email addresses. What can they do with that information? If they harass the victim they get blocked.

    This sounds a little like the "what about the children" arguments.

  • It allows people to essentially e-mail you without having to know your e-mail address and without being able to send e-mail to you via SMTP.

    Think about this for a minute. Spammers and fraudsters like it when they can use botnet-based bulk-mailing tools, because they can send mail quickly and there's no central place that can filter them without catching a lot of false positives. And the filtering fails because it's being done on the receiving end where it has to deal with a lot of unique senders. If I can o

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