What if Government had a Google Buzz Moment?


Three days ago Google released Google Buzz— a product that got a lot of folks excited– especially here in the Labs. But fairly quickly people understood something– Google took a step across an invisible privacy fence. A lot of people are critical or downright ticked off. Google had, in fact, exposed who we communicate with the most to the world.

If the Federal Government released a product similar to Google Buzz, what would have happened?

What would it look like if the Government decided to take the most basic social information about you and create and expose online social network with it, using the information it had?

The first place I’d go if I was the government looking to build such a service would be the IRS. From there, I can determine data about your spouse, dependents and employer. That itself ought to be enough for me to start my service up– linking you up, online to your spouse or former spouses, and the folks that work at your company in the same area you do.

Of course, that’s just one agency. If, for instance, you were a veteran, the Government could link you up with other people you’ve worked with. If you were lobbyist, the Government could link you up with other lobbyists who have lobbied at the same firm on the same issues you have. If you’ve filed for student loans, perhaps it could link you up with all the people you’ve gone to college with.

Now– Google didn’t choose to go this far. It didn’t, for instance, choose to link you up with the people you google stalk. And it didn’t choose to link your google stalkers up with you either, though I should point out that this is a fairly technically difficult task to pull off– but the point remains the same. Google took one product– Gmail, and chose to expose some data to the public about your habits in Gmail without asking your permission first. Though I think they’ve been doing this less explicitly through Google Reader, this time it has caused a big stink stink.

If the Government did this on Tuesday, I’d imagine there’d be a witch-hunt for who was responsible, there’d be congressional hearings, and probably impeachment papers being drawn up as we speak.

In Google’s case, nobody’s shouting “off with his head” about Eric Schmidt. It’s unlikely that any congressional hearings will take place about this. Instead, people are tossing out instruction manuals for opting out of the service and talking about their complaints publicly. Google in turn is listening to feedback and rolling out functionality rather quickly.

The point is– as angry as people could get over Google doing something like this, it doesn’t come anywhere close to how angry people would get if Government did this. And rightfully so. We’re compelled pay taxes. We have a 4th Amendment— it’s arguably against the law for the Government to do what I’m suggesting anyhow. But the question you’ve got to ask yourself is why.

The answer: Google, to an extent, has permission from its users to screw up and rectify the situation. Government does not. We have a much lower tolerance for failure in our government than we do the corporations that serve us. Every time government doesn’t do something exactly right, it’s a political opportunity for someone to strike. And while we all enviously watch Google give its engineers 20% time to innovate, the public would likely be outraged if Government tried this. The end result? Our government isn’t innovative because it can’t fail. If it fails, it becomes a story– another blemish to breed more cynicism. Another story for Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. So– why take any risk at all?

If we want government to open up and innovate, then the right answer is to give it permission to screw up, have a dialogue with people and rectify it. Opening government is as much a citizens responsibility as it is a government’s. It takes not only a shift in thinking on their end, but also on ours.