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Google+ Integration with Gmail Requires Privacy Consideration

In Google’s continuing efforts to integrate Google+ into everything to better compete with Facebook, Google has announced that Gmail users can now send email to Google+ users in their circles, even without knowing the recipient’s email address. This has of course caused massive consternation on the Internet, despite the fact that it’s generally quite easy to find someone’s email address (often via a Google search), the same messages can be sent via Google+ itself, and Google provides controls for limiting or disabling the feature. The actual problems are more subtle.

(How does this compare to Facebook? Although you can often find an email address or other contact information for a Facebook friend, the fact that you have to approve “friend” relationships on Facebook provides more control over what communications can leak into email. You can also message people directly on Facebook even if they aren’t friends.)

To be specific, if you’re using the desktop version of Gmail — this doesn’t work in mobile versions, at least not yet — you can create a new message, start typing a name, and choose someone who is already in your Google+ circles as the recipient from the suggestions menu. Sending email in this fashion reveals your email address to your recipients, but you won’t see their email addresses unless they reply to you. (If you don’t see this feature yet, that’s because it’s still rolling out to all Gmail users.)

Those who know how Google+ works are probably thinking, “Hey, wait a minute! Anyone can add me to one of their circles and thus send me email.” That’s absolutely true, at least with the default settings enabled, but if someone who is not in your circles sends you email in this fashion, you can allow future messages from that person by replying to the message or clicking Add to Circles. If you don’t know the person, or don’t want to receive future messages from him or her, you can ignore the message in order to limit future messages to replies to the first one, or click the Report Spam or Abuse link in the message to block all future contacts from that person.

It’s also worth noting that for those who use Gmail’s default tabbed inbox style (which automatically sorts messages into separate tabs for Primary, Promotions, Social, Updates, and Forums), messages from out-of-circle users appear in your Social tab, whereas messages from in-circle users appear in your Primary tab. While this may be a useful distinction for those who let Google specify their inbox style, those who use Priority Inbox or other inbox styles on Gmail, or who connect to Gmail from an IMAP client like Apple Mail won’t benefit from such sorting.

Personally, I’m not particularly worried about receiving email from Google+ users, since my email address is about as public as it gets, and my experience is that most people are quite considerate about not abusing the ability to send me email. (Spam is a different story, but Gmail already does a better job of filtering spam than any other service I’ve tried.) And, in a world where people intentionally make themselves available via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, it’s hard to get too worked up about this change. I often need to contact previously unknown sources for articles, and, while I generally succeed now, it might be a little easier with this feature in place.

That said, I fully understand if your immediate reaction is negative. Regardless of whether Google+ integration into Gmail will result in more email for you or not, you probably spend more time fending off unwanted email than trying to contact people with whom you haven’t previously traded addresses. The fact that Google seems to be doing this in an effort to increase the number of people in our Google+ circles doesn’t help.

To control who can send you email in this fashion, go to the General settings tab in Gmail on the Web (click the gear icon in the upper right, and choose Settings from the pop-up menu). Scroll down to the Email via Google+ section, and, from the pop-up menu, choose Anyone on Google+, Extended Circles, Circles, or No One. If you find the entire feature worrisome, choose No One. Otherwise, you can decide if it might be helpful to open the feature up somewhat, such as if you are in a public position where it’s helpful for random people to be able to contact you.

I’ll leave my setting at Anyone on Google+ for now so I can determine the extent to which this feature is used or abused, and will report back if it receives any significant use at all. I doubt it will have much impact, but I’ll be curious to see if spammers manage to slip past Google’s safeguards as they have with Facebook and Twitter in the past.

I find two aspects of this change more worrying. First, I’m perturbed by the fact that you can, upon receiving a message from someone not in your circles, click a Report Spam or Abuse link in the message. While that may be appropriate in many situations, will it have an effect on senders’ reputations if they’re acting entirely legitimately? In other words, if someone uses this feature to send me perfectly reasonable email about TidBITS, and I click Report Spam or Abuse for no good reason, will Google somehow record that as a black mark against the sender? I can’t imagine Google will ever say, one way or the other.

Second, I’m troubled by the aforementioned push to encourage us to continually add more people to our Google+ circles. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all do this too, and it’s easy to get suckered into making ever larger online networks, as if the people who have the most “friends” win a prize. The Internet is already infinite, for all practical purposes, and one of the appealing things about highly curated social networks is that they can filter out some of that infinite content. I know it’s all about big data, and all about learning from connections, so the social networks have incentive to get us to connect to ever more people. But I’d suggest that doing so is dangerous, both because it causes us to dilute our social
networks with people we don’t even know, and because it taints the data that the social networking companies are so keen to collect.

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