Technology Integration

Google+ and Privacy: Better for Educators?

Google touts its new social network as having better privacy controls, but can it deliver?

August 15, 2011

One of the biggest ongoing concerns surrounding social networking continues to be questions of privacy -- users' private conversations or users' personal data exposed, whether as a result of error, negligence, or intent. So when Google unveiled its new social network Google Plus, it wasn't surprising to see the search engine position Google Plus as an antidote to the "sloppy," "scary," and "insensitive" sharing options -- in other words, the lack of privacy -- it pointed to on other social networks. Google actually never mentions "privacy" outright in its blog post introducing Google Plus, but that's certainly the subtext, as it positions itself as an alternative to Facebook, the dominant social network, but a site that has had a long string of privacy snafus.

And the promise of better privacy is one of many things that could make Google Plus an appealing site for educators. Circles will allow targeted sharing, for example, so updates and posts can be seen only by those in certain groups. But six weeks since the launch the Google Plus, it's pretty clear that Google hasn't solved the myriad of privacy concerns that can arise on the Internet.

In all fairness, Google Plus, as the site makes very clear, is a "field trial," and Google is still tweaking a number of settings, rolling out a Games feature late last week, for example, with Google Apps integration still to come. And as a nascent social networking site, no surprise, Google Plus has already had a few privacy bugs. Early users discovered, for example, that even if they shared content to a specific Circle, with the intention of limiting the distribution of that content, that others in the Circle could still share those posts to anyone. That's a bug that Google quickly fixed, as it insists it's building a site that offers a very controlled notion of sharing. In other words, if you only want certain people to see a certain post, then Google Plus wants to enable that -- and wants to make doing so easy.

But rethinking how we share via social networks and, as such, how we handle privacy is far from easy, particularly for educators. Educators have long had to wrestle with questions of having public versus private profiles and persona online -- with balancing the personal and the professional on various social networks. And at first glance, Google Plus does seem to address a more nuanced understanding of how we want to be able to share content online.

That's complicated by the very nature of "social." If you hold or participate in a Hangout on Google Plus, an announcement to that fact appears in your stream, and people in your Circle know what your'e doing. If you join a Hangout, you can share its URL with anyone as a de facto invitation, even if you didn't initiate the Hangout in the first place.

It's hard to label this a privacy concern, in some ways. It's a Hangout, after all, something that denotes a public get-together, not a private chat.

That's not to say that that there are no privacy concerns to be had with Google's new social network, as the uproar over the company's stance on pseudonyms has demonstrated. Despite several weeks of controversy and criticisms, Google says it will ban people who register for the site using pseudonyms or nicknames.

Of course, not everyone who uses a pseudonym online does so due to privacy issues, either narrowly or broadly defined. Nonetheless as the Geek Feminism blog has chronicled, lots of people are harmed by a "real names" policy, and the usage of a pseudonym is often tied to questions of personal privacy and personal safety. It's worth pointing out that teachers, librarians, counselors and coaches make the list of people who might opt to use a pseudonym online. And while students aren't on the list that Geek Feminism has compiled, there might be compelling reasons why they should be allowed to use pseudonyms online too.

Often when we talk about privacy and students, it's specifically in terms of rules like COPPA and FERPA that aim to protect student privacy and study data respectively. But as we've examined previously on Edutopia, these laws pre-date the Internet and they certainly pre-date social networking websites. (COPPA was first passed in 1998; FERPA in 1974.) As such, it's not hard to argue that these laws don't "get it right" when it comes to online activity.

But it's clear that Google Plus hasn't quite got it right yet either. In some ways, Google Plus does give you more meaningful choices around your data and your friends online. But as the responses to Google's policy on pseudonyms highlight, we have already developed a number of ways for protecting our privacy online -- and some of these practices do indeed allow people to share more honestly and openly, it's worth reiterating.

For educators that are on Google Plus, has the site made you re-consider how and what you share -- both personally and professionally?

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