Google Buzz: Economic Surveillance – Buzz Off! The Problem of Online Surveillance and the Need for an Alternative Internet

I wrote this text for a longer paper about online surveillance that will be included in the collected volume “The Internet & Surveillance” that I am editing together with Kees Boersma, Anders Albrechtslund, and Marisol Sandoval as part of the EU COST Action “Living in Surveillance Societies” (see The book will be published in 2011.

In February 2010, Google introduced a new social networking service called Buzz. Buzz is directly connected to GMail, Google’s webmail-platform. Google’s introduction of Buzz is an attempt to gain importance in the social networking sites-market that has been dominated by Facebook and Twitter. In February 2010, Facebook was ranked number 2 and Twitter number 12 in the list of the most accessed web platforms, whereas Google’s own social networking platform Orkut, which is only very popular in Brazil, was at number 52 (data source:, the top 500 sites on the web, February 14, 2010). Popular social networking platforms attract millions of users, who upload and share personal information that provides data about their consumption preferences. Therefore commercial social networking sites are keen on storing, analyzing, and selling individual and aggregated data about user preferences and user behaviour to advertising clients in order to accumulate capital. Google is itself a main player in the business of online advertising. One can therefore assume that Google considers Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that attract many users, as competitors, and that as a result of this competitive situation Google has introduced Buzz. In 2009, GMail had approximately 150 million users (see, accessed on February 14, 2010), which explains that Google integrated Buzz into GMail in order to start from a solid foundation of potential users.

Buzz supports the following communicative functions: the creation of postings that are shared with contacts, the sharing of images and videos, commenting and evaluating others’ Buzz posts, the forwarding of Twitter messages to a Buzz account, linking and integrating images uploaded to Flickr or Picasa, videos uploaded to YouTube, and posts generated on Blogger; the usage of Buzz via mobile phones. Buzz messages can either be presented publicly or only to selected groups of followers. Each user’s Buzz profile has a list of followers. Users can select which Buzz accounts they want to follow. Buzz mobile phone messages include geo-tags that display the current location of users. Buzz posts of users who are geographically located nearby a user and information about nearby sites, shops, restaurants, etc can be displayed on mobile phones. Buzz also recommends postings by others users.

In December 2009, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt commented about online privacy: “If you have something that you do not want anyone to know, maybe you should not be doing it in the first place” (, accessed on February 14, 2010). This statement is an indication that Google or at least its most important managers and shareholders do not value privacy very highly. Schmidt’s statement implies that he thinks that in the online world, all uploaded information and personal data should be available publicly and should be usable by corporations for economic ends.

When first installing Buzz, the application automatically generated a list of followers for each user based on the most frequent GMail mail contacts. The standard setting was that this list of followers was automatically visible in public. This design move resulted in heavy criticism of Google in the days following the launch of Buzz. Users and civil rights advocates argued that Buzz threatens the privacy of users and makes contacts that users might want to keep private available in public. Google reacted to public criticism (see:,, accessed on February 14, 2010) and changed some of the standard settings of Buzz on February 13, 2010. Some changes were made to the auto-follow option, so that now a dialogue is displayed that shows which users Buzz suggests as followers (see:, accessed on February 14, 2010). But still all suggested followers are automatically activated, which does not make this solution an opt-in version of the follow feature. Google also said that Buzz would no longer automatically connect publicly available Picasa and Google Reader items to the application. Also an options menu was announced that allows users to hide their contact list from their public Google profiles. The problem here is again that this was planned as an opt-out solution, and not as an opt-in option (see:, accessed on February 14, 2010). From a privacy-enhancing perspective, opt-in solutions are preferable to opt-out solutions because they give users more control over what applications are allowed to do with their data. However, it is clear that opt-in solutions are rather unpopular design options for many Internet corporations because they tend to reduce the number of potential users that are subject to advertising-oriented data surveillance.

At the Google Buzz launch event on February 9, 2010, the presenters were keen on stressing the advantages that Buzz poses for users. Bradley Horwitz, Google vice president of product marketing, spoke of Buzz as “a Google approach to sharing” and a tool that will “help you manage your attention better” (, accessed on February 15, 2010). There was no talk about potential disadvantages. When in the question and answer section of the event, the first question that came about was about privacy issues, Buzz product manager Todd Jackson answered: “There is a lot of controls in there for users. […] There are ways to control the settings you are revealing to other people” (ibid.). Four days later, following a public discussion about the surveillance and privacy threats of Buzz, Google sounded much less optimistic. On the Google GMail blog, Todd Jackson wrote: “We’ve heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we’ve been working around the clock to address the concerns you’ve raised” (, accessed on February 15, 2010).

Google’s economic strategy is to gather data about users that utilize different Google applications in different everyday situations. The more everyday situations can be supported by Google applications, the more time users will spend online with Google, so that more user data will be available to Google, which allows the company to better analyze usage and consumer behaviour. As a result, more and more precise user data and aggregated data can be sold to advertising clients that provide the users with personalized advertising that targets them in all of these everyday situations with information about potential consumption choices. The introduction of ever more applications does primarily serve economic ends that are realized by large-scale user surveillance. As more and more people access the Internet from their mobile phones, the number of times and the time spans users are online as well as the number of access points and situations in which users are online increase. Therefore supplying applications that are attractive for users in all of these circumstances (such as waiting for the bus or the underground, travelling on the train or the airplane, going to a restaurant, concert, or movie, visiting friends, attending a business meeting, etc), promises that users spend more time online with applications supplied by specific companies such as Google, which allows these companies to present more advertisements that are more individually targeted to users, which in turn promises more profit for the companies. We can therefore say that there is a strong economic incentive for Google’s and other companies’ introduction of new Internet- and mobile Internet-applications.

Google Buzz is part of Google’s empire of economic surveillance. It gathers information about user behaviour and user interests in order to store, assess, and sell this data to advertising clients. These surveillance practices are legally guaranteed by the Buzz privacy policy, which says for example: “When you use Google Buzz, we may record information about your use of the product, such as the posts that you like or comment on and the other users who you communicate with. This is to provide you with a better experience on Buzz and other Google services and to improve the quality of Google services. […] If you use Google Buzz on a mobile device and choose to view “nearby” posts, your location will be collected by Google” (Google Buzz Privacy Policy, February 14, 2010).

Google uses DoubleClick – a commercial advertising server owned by Google since 2007 that collects and networks data about usage behaviour on various websites, sells this data, and helps providing targeted advertising – for networking the data it holds about its users with data about these users’ browsing and usage behaviour on other web platforms. There is only an opt-out option from this form of networked economic surveillance. Opt-out options are always rather unlikely to be used because in many cases they are hidden inside of long privacy and usage terms and are therefore only really accessible to knowledgeable users. Many Internet corporations avoid opt-in advertising solutions because such mechanisms drastically reduce the potential number of users participating in advertising. The Google privacy policy says in this context: “Google uses the DoubleClick advertising cookie on AdSense partner sites and certain Google services to help advertisers and publishers serve and manage ads across the web. You can view, edit, and manage your ads preferences associated with this cookie by accessing the Ads Preferences Manager. In addition, you may choose to opt out of the DoubleClick cookie at any time by using DoubleClick’s opt-out cookie” (Gogle Privacy Policy, February 14, 2010).

Google’s online product advertising for Buzz says: “The first thing we all do when we find something interesting is share it. More and more of this kind of sharing takes place online. Google Buzz is a new way to share updates, photos, videos, and more. […] When you are out in the real world, you usually want to say something about where you are. Buzz makes this easy” (Google Buzz advertising, online at, February 14, 2009). Sharing information with friends and to a certain extent with the public is surely an important feature of everyday communication that allows humans to stay in touch and to make new contacts. But Google only presents potential advantages of Buzz and does not say a single word about potential disadvantages. Do people really want to share vast amounts of private data and location data not only with their friends, but also with Google? Can Google be considered as a friend of all humans, or doesn’t it rather accumulate power that can also cause great harm to humans? Do people really always want to tell others where they currently are? Are people really interested in sharing their location data not only with selected friends, but also with Google? It is a natural corporate behaviour that Google only presents potential advantages of its applications in its marketing videos, ads, and events. But by doing so, it creates a one-dimensional picture of online reality that conveys the impression that we live in a world without power structures, in which all humans always benefit from corporate practices. But the great financial crisis has made clear to many citizens that corporations cannot always be trusted and are prone to act in ways that do not benefit all, but only a small group of investors.

Buzz is not the only example of Google-enhanced surveillance. Google has developed Goggles, which is an image-recognition software that identifies objects that people take pictures of by mapping these objects with Google’s image database and provides information about these objects. If this application were linked to image data about humans, it would allow people to identify and obtain information about humans, who they see on the street by taking a picture of them and linking this image to Google in real time. This would on the one hand allow humans to intrude the privacy of others in public spaces by identifying their personality and it would allow Google to gather, assess, provide, and potentially sell real time data about the physical location of millions of people.

Why is data surveillance for economic surveillance by Google applications such as Buzz problematic? One could argue that Google provides a free service to users and that in return it should be allowed to access, store, analyze, and use personal data and Internet usage behaviour. But the problem is that the power relations between Google and its users are not symmetric. In December 2008, Google controlled 57% of the online advertising market (, accessed on February 15, 2010). A Google monopoly in online advertising poses several threats (for a general account of the threats of information monopolies see Fuchs 2008, 164-171):

* Ideological power threat: Online advertising presents certain realities as important to users and leaves out those realities that are non-corporate in character or that are produced by actors that do not have enough capital in order to purchase online advertisements. An online advertising monopoly therefore advances one-dimensional views of reality.

* Political power threat: In modern society, money is a form of influence on political power. The concentration of online advertising therefore gives Google huge political power.

* Control of labour standards and prices: An online advertising monopoly holds the power to set industry-wide labour standards and prices. This can pose disadvantages for workers and consumers.

* Economic centralization threat: An economic monopoly controls large market shares and thereby deprives other actors of economic opportunities.

* Surveillance threat: Targeted online advertising is based on the collection of vast amounts of personal user data and usage behaviour that is stored, analyzed, and passed on to advertising customers. Modern societies are stratified, which means that certain groups and individuals compete with others for the control of resources, consider others as their opponents, benefit from certain circumstances at the expense of others, etc. Therefore information about personal preferences and individual behaviour can cause harm to individuals if it gets into the hand of their opponents or others who might have an interest in harming them. Large-scale data gathering and surveillance in a society that is based on the principle of competition poses certain threats to the well-being of all citizens. Therefore special privacy protection mechanisms are needed. All large collections of data pose the threat of being accessed by individuals who want to harm others. If such collections are owned privately, then access to data might be sold because there is an economic interest in accumulating money. Humans who live in modern societies have an inherent interest in controlling which personal data about them is stored and is available to whom because they are facing systemic threats of being harmed by others. Large collections of personal information pose under the given modern circumstances the threat that humans can be harmed because their foes, opponents, or rivals in private or professional life can potentially gain access to such data. Since 9/11, there has been an extension and intensification of state surveillance that is based on the argument that security from terrorism is more important than privacy. But state surveillance is prone to failure, and the access of state institutions to large online collections about citizens (as for example enabled by the USA PATRIOT Act) not only poses the possibility for detecting terrorists, but also the threat that a large number of citizens is considered as potential criminals or terrorists without having committed any crimes and the threat that the state obtains a huge amount of information about the private lives of citizens that the latter consider worth protecting (as for example: political views, voting decisions, sexual preferences and relationships, friendship statuses).

Overall, the introduction of Google Buzz shows that there is an antagonism of privacy protection and economic surveillance interests on the contemporary Internet that is dominated by commercial interests. It might be time for thinking more about strengthening alternative Internet platforms and the potentials for constructing an alternative Internet.

Christian Fuchs (

Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and society: social theory in the information age. New York: Routledge.

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20 Responses to “Google Buzz: Economic Surveillance – Buzz Off! The Problem of Online Surveillance and the Need for an Alternative Internet”

  • Comment from B. E. Meister

    Believe this sentence may be wrong:

    “However, it is clear that opt-out solutions are rather unpopular design options for many Internet corporations because they tend to reduce the number of potential users that are subject to advertising-oriented data surveillance.”

    I think this should say “…it is clear that opt-in solutions…”

    Or perhaps I followed the wrong thread of thinking…


  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Thanks for the hint, Bernhard, this was indeed a mistake, it is “opt-in solutions” in this case, I have corrected this passage.
    Cheers, Christian

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  • This statement, “Schmidt’s statement implies that he thinks that in the online world, all uploaded information and personal data should be available publicly and should be usable by corporations for economic ends.” is somewhat of a leap wouldn’t you say?

    Google allows you to control all the information that you are sharing. You can shut any piece of it down or simply take it away. Google IS part of the open Internet. Another point you never mentioned, I can get all of my content OUT of google at any time. I can shut down the practice. This is not the case with many social networks.

    If you are truly concerned about PRIVACY-you should definitely include conversations around Facebook and other social networking sites. In addition, it’s not just Google that should cause you concern if the real issue is concentrated power of access to all this user data.

    As far as an alternative internet, I didn’t read anything about the solution here. What kind of alternative do you propose? I’d love to hear that part of your story.


  • Comment from Ivelina Georgieva

    Dear Mr Fuchs,

    I find your article very illuminating and I am looking forward to reading your book! I am currently working on a project regarding national political perception management agendas and the use of the media. In particular, I am addressing the rising hype in the US towards Chinese “cyber wariers,” “an electronic 9/11″ etc, etc. I was very interested in your idea of the creation of an alternative Internet platform, a project, which I know has been initiated several times under different names- Internet governance regime, cyber Geneva convention, etc. So far, no progress… Since the conflict between privacy and economic interests is only going to grow, especially after the advent of social networks, what do you think will happen? Despite the decentralized nature of the cyber realm, the US still has certain monopoly over it… and without their participation, it will be impossible to draw the “genie” of manipulating the human mind back into the bottle. It seems so far, however, that all US cyberwar hullabaloo is not likely to elicit an urge towards cooperation but the diversion of more and more $ towards the defense budgets… and possibly, the emergence of yet another profitable private sector (and the corresponding lobby) centered around cyber issues.

    Excuse my prolixity, I was just wondering whether you see the possibility of Internet governance as real and if so, what are the first steps to be taken in this direction on the background of all this cyber war mumbo-jumbo in the popular media?


  • Comment from Chris Babcock

    Just the good stuff
    Buzz recommends interesting posts and weeds out ones you’re likely to skip

    Anyone else have an issue with this feature?

    Not filtering, per se, but that there is no disclosure on the filtering algorithms involved or guarantee that there will not be any manual tinkering.

  • [...] fuchs reflects on google buzz in a posting distributed today on nettime-l and [idc] titled “Google Buzz: Economic Surveillance – Buzz Off! The Problem of Online Surveillance and the Need for….” Among the more interesting observations including what is becoming for me one of many [...]

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    @ Jennifer:

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer.

    I think the quote by Eric Schmidt shows at least that he is not too concerned about privacy issues on the Internet. An it is in my view likely that his voiced opinion is related to the economic operations and goals of Google.

    I agree with you that it is not just Google, there are many more examples of Internet platforms that support surveillance. Facebook and other social networking sites (SNS) are other important examples that need to be studied. I have conducted an empirical case study about surveillance on SNS, the results are available here:, A few similiar studies have been conducted by others, but studying surveillance on web 2.0 is still in an early stage, more research is needed.

    The notion of an alternative Internet includes for me all platforms that are non-commercial in character, it includes open access, creative commons, free access, open content etc projects. Wikipedia is sucessful and operatives based on a non-commercial model. If it works in the realm of wikis, why should this commons model not also be applied to social networking, etc? One example that is hardly known is the Open Networx Initiatve that operates the social networking platform Kaioo, where users can discuss and edit the privacy policy in form of a wiki, which in my opinion is a much more democratic approach than you find at Google, Facebook, MySpace and most other commercial operators that do not operate based on a participatory model.
    In my view, it would be a policy wise move to more discuss considering strengthening public funding for such initiatives.

    Facebook now let’s users discuss privacy rules, but users in no way have a right to influence the privacy policy. They can only make suggestions, but in the end Facebook decides how the policy looks like. So this is not digital democracy, it is what Carole Pateman in the 1970s termed “pseudo-participation”.

    Much can be said about an alternative Internet and much work still needs to be done in this respect. Of course, the dominant model now is the advertising-financed Internet. If you take a look at the 100 most-accessed Intenet platforms, then you will see that hardly any non-commercial platforms like Wikipedia are present. But that alternative Internet platforms are not dominant, but nonetheless I think that if they were used more frequently and mechanisms could be found for supporting their creation by public resources, less privacy problems would be encountered on the Internet.

    I will try to identify some principles of an alternative Internet in my forthcoming book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies” that will probably be published in late 2010 by Routledge.

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Dear Ivelina,

    Thank you for your interest in my post and your comment.

    If we take a look at the top 100 most accessed web platforms, or even the top 500 platforms (see, then we find out that most of them are commercial in character and based on personalized targeted advertising. I think that one of the main mechanisms that is causing all of these privacy problems is personalized advertising. Commercial Internet platforms want to accumulate as many users as possible, they encourage users to upload as much data as possible and to publicly share it with as many users as possible, because more traffic, data, and online behaviour means more potential advertising customers. In my view it is no surprise that in most cases turning off advertising options is either not possible, or is only an opt-out option. In most cases, advertising is not an opt-in solution. I think an easy policy design guideline could be to require commericla Internet platforms by law to make advertising always an opt-in option that is auto-disabled. Another policy suggestion is to provide more public funding for non-commercial Internet projects. If Wikipedia works based on a non-commercial project, why should this not also be possible in the realm of social networking platforms, etc? If such projects were strengthened, then it would be likely in my view that less privacy problems would occur. As privacy is a common interest, online privacy should be advanced by state regulation. And this could be done by providing public funding for non-commercial Internet projects. An example of a non-commercial Internet project in the realm of social networking sites is the OpenNetworx Initiative: It is not-yet so well known, but a promising approach in my view.

    If we take a look at the results of WSIS 1+2, then it is clear that the discussions about Internet governance were dominated by industry interests and that civil society concerns were not taken that serious. Nonetheless I think that it is of upmost importance that civil society groups and concerned citizens keep on voicing their concerns, although it right now looks like Internet governance is dominated by powerful interests. This could surely change if public counter-power is steadily built up and grows from below.

    Personally, I am also interested in research about 1) the problems of the existing Internet, 2) the opportunities that alternative Internet projects can pose. In this context, I use the notion of the “participatory, co-operative, sustainable information society”, which does not-yet exist, but is a vision of how the information society could alternatively develop. Discussions about an alternative Internet are related to this alternative information society concept. A paper by me that discusses this notion has just been published in the journal Information, Communication & Society: (if you can log in from a university server, then you will probably be able to download the paper, if not, I can send you a copy of it, if you are interested and let me know).

    My personal view is that the alternative Internet is thus far a vision, a mere potentiality that is anticipated by some already existing projects. For strengthening this vision, I think that 1) discussions at the policy level are needed, and 2) critical research that shows the problems and positive potentials of the Internet.

    Best, Christian

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Dear Chris,

    In my view, the problem is that human cognition is much more complex than algorithmic prediction and modelling. Your human choices can never be perfectly anticipated by a computer software. The very definition of humanity and of human cognition is that it involves degrees of freedom of action. Computers do not at all have freedom of action, the computer metaphor of the brain is long outdated. But to me it seems like Google and others think that human action and cognition can be modelled by algorithms. So the failure of the automatic post suggestion on Buzz is already the false underlying picture of what it means to be human that is built into the software. On the question why and in which respect humans are different from computer technologies, you might find this text interesting:

    At a practical level what I suggest implies that a certain amount of the posts that Buzz suggest to you, will be uninteresting for you, many other interesting ones will be missing, and that Buzz thereby creates a very reductionistic and one-dimensional communication universe. We do not know how the algorithm is built (which is a problem of missing democratic transparency), so one can speculate whether or not the rich will get richer on Buzz, which means that the algorithm might be built in such a way that the most commented posts are suggested much more frequently than others, which in the end creates a strongly stratified Buzz attention economy.

    Another problem that I have with Buzz is its understanding of freedom. The auto-following mode is still not a real opt-in solution, which means that Buzz somehow coerces users into making connections public that users might want to keep private. It is a false assumption that a high frequency of communication with certain persons means that this constitutes a social relation that is based on positive feelings. I found this comment by a blogger that was reported in The Guardian very telling:
    What this example shows is that an algorithm can never tell which connection is desirable and which one isn’t and that auto-following is therefore a wrong design option. In my view, it should always be fully left to the users to decide themselves whom they want to connect to on a social network on whom they do not want to connect to. But of course auto-following or auto-suggest-following is motivated by economic interests in the case of Buzz and the strong competition that Google is facing by Facebook and Twitter so that it now wants to sky-rocket the numbers of users and the communication traffic of Buzz in no time.

    The main problem concerning the algorithimic design of Buzz is in my view the misconception of the essence of being human that is underlying the software and the assumed reduceability of human cognition to deterministic algorithms.

  • Comment from Mike

    “If you have something that you do not want anyone to know, maybe you should not be doing it in the first place”

    Try aiming that statement at Dick Cheney and his energy task force, or any other politician who hides behind the state secrets privilege.

  • [...] sounding redundant. (If you’re playing catch-up, I recommend NYT and LAT coverage, as well as this and [...]

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  • Comment from Moloch

    What I’d like to see is an alternative Internet existing within the current Internet. For instance, why can’t I run a mail server on my home machine? Currently the mail ports are blocked by my ISP, that’s why, as is http’s port 80. An alternative Internet within the current one would have to be able to adapt on the fly to blocked ports. For instance, suppose I have a server listening on 200 ports. A mail sender could just randomly choose one of them, start an encrypted connection and deliver mail. But the list of ports would have to somehow be a secret or they’d get blocked by ISPs, and the list would have to change over time.

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  • Comment from D. Soliquay

    It becomes quite obvious google is no respector of privacy when your unrelated and unlinked email addresses appear when you load the home search page. Please does anyone know how to stop or prevent this?

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  • Comment from Paul

    Very intereting article. Thank you so much for posting. Lonts of things I have never even guessed.
    Alternative to the internet? How can that be possible… anything else will still be internet…

  • [...] Fuchs reflects on Google buzz in a posting distributed today on nettime-l and [idc] titled “Google Buzz: Economic Surveillance – Buzz Off! The Problem of Online Surveillance and the Need for….” Among the more interesting observations including what is becoming for me one of many [...]