It's now a sad reality of social networking and being a citizen of the Internet that every few weeks or months the Powers That Be at a well-used web service decide to make a major change in privacy settings without public input that sends us all searching for the (often difficult to find) opt-out button. Not long ago it was Twitter changing how the block function worked, a decision swiftly reversed when thousands of tweets against it mounted within hours.
This time around it's Google, and they're not just changing some function that only affects the public part of the service. Someone at the search giant thought it would be a good idea to make it so anyone on Google+ can email you, even if they don't know your address. This affects everyone on Gmail even if you don't use Google+ because, as a Google account user, you're automatically on it. And you can only lock down your profile so much, if you've even bothered to try. It wouldn't be hard for anyone to send you unsolicited email at least once.
If, like me, you don't think so, there's a way to turn this off. Googling the answer to that yielded about 26,000 results. A popular feature it's not. But there are some voices in the conversation that insist this new feature is no big deal. Tech pundit Robert Scoble scolded the tech press via Facebook on the anger over this latest move.
"It lets people email you. Geesh. I hate this movement which asks you to make it hard to contact you. ... Do you know how many cool things I have been invited to because I make it easy to contact me? ... Go ahead. Lock down your privacy. You will never know what you are missing out on."
In this same post he offers up his phone number and email address to prove that it's okay for everyone to have this information out there in public. It certainly hasn't affected him negatively! He's even gotten business because of it. Scoffity scoff!
All of that may be true. Here's what else is true about Robert Scoble: he's a well-connected individual with white, cis, and male privilege in an industry that values white, cis male opinions , analysis, and accomplishment, often at the expense of people who don't match that description. Is it a shock then that he doesn't see why having strangers email him might be a problem?
It's safe to say that Scoble has probably never experienced the same kind of response to his very person that women journalists and bloggers have to endure. He even once posted a picture of himself taking a shower with Google Glass on with no apparent fear that someone would be along to mock his body, make inappropriate sexual comments, or start calling him to talk dirty because that's what he clearly wants, putting naked pictures like that on the Internet, right?
He also seems oblivious to how his privilege colors his opinion on the issue. In the comments of his Facebook post he insists over and over that he hasn't suffered negatively from having all his info out there, which must mean it can't be so bad for anyone else. When I brought up that things are different for women, people of color, and other folks that come from marginalized communities or backgrounds, he countered with: "Cars kill 30,000 people every year yet we still drive."
There must be a BINGO card with this on it somewhere.
Maybe Scoble doesn't talk to women much and doesn't know what we deal with just in doing our jobs. Every time I do a video in which I appear with a gadget I'm guaranteed to get at least one comment about my weight, my looks, or my wardrobe. Sarah Silbert, who writes for Engadget, regularly deals with gendered observations and insults in her posts and videos that range from "She's hot" to "What a stupid bitch." The men at Engadget get critical comments as well, but largely for things that aren't about their looks or intelligence. That's almost exclusively reserved for the women contributors.
Jennifer L. Pozner, Executive Director of Women In Media & News and author of Reality Bites Back, says that she's had to deal with "violent, hypersexualized, and deeply misogynistic hate mail" in her real and digital mailboxes since she started in journalism in the 90s.
The problem isn't limited to women in the public eye, either. "Google's new email policy amounts to the company telling women, 'Privacy? What's privacy compared to the freedom of Stalker McCreepsalot to email you even if you would rather guzzle lighter fluid than give him your address?'" Pozner says. "This tone deaf decision to allow anyone to email anyone ignores the physical safety of women and people of color in digital spaces, where they are disproportionately harassed with rape and death threats regularly in public social media platforms; they shouldn't have to deal with it in their private email accounts as well. Google should not be in the business of making it easier for stalkers and harassers to find and contact their targets."
Pozner blames the policy in part on underrepresentation of women in tech companies. It also doesn't help when prominent pundits like Robert Scoble, whose influence on the tech sector is undeniably strong, loudly proclaim that anyone who disagrees with his opinion on the matter is "simply wrong."
In both cases, the lack of empathy or understanding of how these changes to Google+ and Gmail affect people outside of the demographic overrepresented in tech journalism and tech board rooms creates more problems than the feature solves. Pozner warns that tech companies undermine the efficacy of technological innovation with these moves and hinder the industry's ability to serve its whole audience.
The only bright spot in this debacle is that Gmail users can opt-out. This doesn't change the fact that it would have been much better to make the feature opt-in. As it is, Google hasn't notified all users of the policy or of where they can turn the feature off, so there are bound to be millions who don't know about it. Those of us in the know have to be the ones to spread the word and protect each other.