Social Network Privacy: Google+ or Facebook for a Safer Experience?

With Google’s release of Google+, comparisons between the Internet giant’s latest dive into social networking…

Social Network Privacy

…(we’ve been here before with Wave, Orkut and Buzz) and perennial heavyweight Facebook have exploded across the Web in countless articles.

Content focus has typically been on friend functionality, comparing user interfaces and in which social situations—work discussions, party photos, blogs about cats, etc.—you’d use one or the other.

But what about privacy—keeping Internet life interactive but safe? We want to be social like a butterfly but not as vulnerable as one. We can take steps to ensure our computers are safe, it’s worth further examining how Google+ and Facebook privacy concerns let you manage your online presence.

Your photos

At this point in Google Plus’ lifecycle, photo sharing is simple. Your Google photos reside in a Picasa account, and with each album you have the option to switch the contents from private, to shared with selected friends, to public.

If you don’t want your images made public, you can adjust your setting to make them "private." For images that are okay for public consumption, they can be shared and tagged by people who aren’t necessarily found in your Circles (i.e., Google Plus’ customizable groups of friends, family and associates). But, you are always notified when you’re tagged in someone else’s album and can remove the tag if you like.

Facebook works largely the same way. However, with its well-deserved reputation for considering the user’s privacy second, the social network came under fire (yet again), in June for instituting instant facial-recognition software, resulting in members getting automatically tagged in photos and receiving notification after the fact.

Even if you’re offline or a friend doesn’t tag you out of courtesy, Facebook could take it upon itself to tag you in a photo you’d prefer to keep private; or, it could simply tag the image of you incorrectly (the software isn’t perfect). Some Facebook users have complained about finding their pictures in advertisements as well.

You can switch this setting off—but again, Facebook puts the responsibility on the user, with automatic photo-tagging set as the default.

Verdict: Google Plus wins. The difference lies in the default settings, and even though both social networks can make your pictures public, Plus initially makes pictures more private than Facebook.

Your posts and feed

Three significant differences exist between Facebook and Google Plus when it comes to the information you share and view.

1. Facebook requires both parties to participate in creating the relationship—one person sends a friend request and the other accepts it.
With Plus, you can add any member to your Circles without consent from the other party.

Of course, if some weirdo starts following you, he can be blocked; but like the case with Facebook’s automatic photo tagging, this is a step you must take retroactively. Similarly to Twitter, Google Plus privacy allows for a unilateral friendship; when someone adds you to his or her Plus Circle, they are not added to yours.

Verdict: Facebook wins—the fact that your approval is required for any person wishing to view your information gives them the edge.

2. Facebook doesn’t make it as simple as Plus to manage different groups of friends, associates and family. For many, all Facebook connections are bucketed in the same group: Friends. Although the social network provides tools for organizing friends into groups with which you can share specific content, they aren’t easily accessible.

Plus makes the group division part of the process—and it’s really easy. You have to divvy up your Plus contacts among a number of buckets, which in the end empowers you to share different content appropriately. Perhaps you want to share pictures from Saturday night and a business article at the same time. Google Plus makes it far easier to send one to your friends and the other to your work associates.

Verdict: Google Plus wins. Managing social groups within Facebook is beyond cumbersome; most don’t even know it’s possible. Plus is upfront and clear.

3. Your Plus feed’s default is set to "public" – anyone can view it – and just recently Facebook’s default has changed to be the same (previously it had been only friends). In this sense, both are more like Twitter in that you have to take active steps to hide your posts from the outside world. Both have default settings that can be adjusted so that "Friends only" is your primary posting method.

Verdict: Draw. Both behave in almost the exact same fashion with Facebooks’ recent changes.

Your information—and keeping it yours

It’s simply piece of mind, but a big question with any social network is, "Can I walk away? Or is this like the mafia where I can never truly get out?" Both services allow you to export your information and "take it home with you." But it’s worth noting how each allows you to remove your personal data.

Facebook has, for lack of a better word, buried the functionality; it’s deep within your settings. Google Plus, on the other hand, has the function one click away from your home screen, with different customizable exports, depending on whether you want to remove your photos, posts, profile, etc.

Again, this is probably just piece of mind (they could remove this function at any time and there’s nothing you could do about it), but that Plus puts user privacy and the ability to remove yourself from the Internet up front, makes the service "feel" far friendlier.

Verdict: Google Plus wins. Both networks give you the option to delete your files and profile, but Google is far more upfront and clear about how to manage and remove your information; Facebook essentially hides it.

Both Facebook and Google Plus will continue to battle for user share, and with that there will be further developments in how you can keep your information safe and secure. For now, Plus is in the lead. While both networks ultimately give you the same tools to manage your privacy, Google Plus jumps ahead with its uncomplicated settings system. And that’s enough to give it an edge... for now.

By Caleb Garling