Since a Microsoft social media researcher gave the keynote at the South by Southwest interactive festival Saturday with a focus on privacy, it's not surprising that she had Google in her crosshairs. While Microsoft has had its share of PR debacles, their message as Google has continued to make headlines in the clouds has been one of trust in the enterprise. Danah Boyd's position then, as CNET explained, was a pretty direct strike against the Internet giant: "Privacy is not dead in the era of online social networking. It just needs careful curation."
Ms. Boyd didn't pull any punches in her keynote. She especially targeted what many see as Google's disastrous Buzz launch.
Google failed by interfacing Buzz, a public-facing system, with Gmail, "one of the most private systems imaginable." The problem with that, she explained, is that "people genuinely believed that Google was exposing their private e-mails to the world."
Much like Facebook with its recently revamped privacy settings, Google's initial default settings for Buzz left something to be desired.
CNNMoney recently featured the problems represented by the Buzz launch in their article "Google's Privacy Challenge." Clearly, Google makes its money by leveraging data that they collect on our Internet usage. Targeted search would be useless without data. However, as the author discussed the Buzz incident, he echoed the concerns that Microsoft would love to exploit:
After a public uproar, Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) made a fix to Buzz's defaults within two days of its launch that largely satisfied the concerns of users and organizations dedicated to information privacy. But the wonky controls led some to wonder if Google's interests lay more with making money than with ensuring users' privacy.
Boyd continued to highlight Google's mistakes as her keynote progressed. Differentiating between what she called articulated networks and behavioral networks, she characterized different kinds of social interactions and expectations based upon a user's context (e.g., online and social vs. personal and confidential). When those two contexts get mixed, as Google did with Buzz, people get alarmed.
"There's a big difference between publicly available data and publicized data," she said, "and I worry about this publication process, and who will be caught in the crossfire."
Boyd certainly touched on some open nerves and revealed more evidence of the shifting perception of Google and Microsoft. Google's brand remains strong; its overwhelming market share is evidence of that. However, when Microsoft gets to take the moral high ground, especially at a conference like SXSW, Google needs to tread very lightly indeed.