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Hot on the heels of the recent Beacon/Facebook fiasco, Google has managed to stir up a sizeable controversy with the recent launch of its new Google reader feature, “Sharing with Friends.”

For those unfamiliar, the “Sharing with Friends” feature of the Google reader is designed to share a user’s saved links and feeds with his or her Gmail contacts.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Isn’t sharing information about your likes, dislikes, and interests with a social network whose members have been selected by you precisely what makes networking sites like MySpace and Facebook so popular? What’s the difference between sharing links in Google and posting a MySpace bulletin anyway?

Apparently, a big one.

The first problem? When Google launched the “Sharing with Friends” feature on December 14th, 2007, it chose not to make an opt-in available to its users. Tsk tsk.

So, instead of users being given the conscious choice to share their links and feeds with their contacts, as one does when posting a MySpace bulletin, any and all users of the Google reader were subject to what seems to be a largely unwelcome broadcasting of their shared links and feeds to all of their contacts on their Google Talk list (or Chat List, as it is known in Gmail).

Ok, I’m going to stop here and admit that I’m not exactly sure how this “Sharing with Friends” thing works, or worked, for that matter. I’ve read the information on Google’s website along with a bunch of users’ complaints. However, I remain unclear as to what contacts receive what information. Is your information broadcast only to the Gmail contacts with whom you have chatted in the past? Is your information broadcast to all of your Gmail contacts who use Google Talk/Chat, whether or not you have chatted with them? Or is your information broadcast to everyone in your Gmail contacts list, chatty, tight-lipped, or otherwise?

I do not know. Google’s support pages say one thing, and users say another. And maybe that is part of the problem.

However, for the sake of this blog, let us assume the “Sharing with Friends” feature shares users’ saved links with all of his or her contacts within Google Talk (or Chat). This brings us to the second problem: not everyone in my Talk/Chat list is my friend!

Now, keeping in mind the above, let us assume you have spent a year researching a highly classified topic within your industry, and have been using the Google reader to share your findings with a select group of colleagues via your public page. Then, suddenly one afternoon, every single person in your Chat list (including industry competitors) is now privy to what you consider to be the most prized collection of market research known to man.

If you think the above scenario is far-flung, think again. It is precisely what happened to this guy. But I digress…

The current controversy surrounding the Google reader is only one talking point in the quagmire that is online privacy. And while I am no expert in the field, I can tell you that I find both the Facebook news feed and mini-feed impossibly annoying, and the fact that my friends can see the last time I updated my MySpace profile intrusive.

Don’t get me started on the fact that when I was no longer interested in dating a certain someone, that fact was broadcast to everyone on my Facebook friends list, as soon as I changed my relationship status to “single.” I may as well have blogged about it.

Onward, what does Google have to say about the whole Google reader mess? Their official response can be read here: however, the majority of Google users are not satisfied.

And it is not only users who are questioning the motives, tactics, and privacy policies of popular online destinations. In anticipation of the possible purchase of DoubleClick by Google, Google’s privacy policy has recently come under attack by Republican Congressman Joe Barton, who, in a letter to Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, asked detailed questions regarding Google’s collection and use of personal information.

What will happen next? Stay tuned. This is getting good.

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