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A question has been rattling around the back of my brain for the last week or two. That question is, “What the hell is Google+, and why is it sending me emails?”

The Associated Press says, blandly, that Google+, Google’s new social network, “is about trying to gain valuable insights into people’s lives and relationships.” That, of course, is a lie or, if not a lie, a convenient marketing euphemism. Google+ is, like everything Google does, a way to (hopefully) sell you things by better targeting advertising. Advertising is targeted by using your personal information. The more personal information Google has about you, the more it gathers through social networks like Google+, the more likely you are to spend money when Google says to you, through multiple advertising platforms linked to it, “Hey, why don’t you buy this?”

Fear and loathing concerning Google+ is due in no small part to Google’s well-established disregard for the security of your data, its repeated “accidental” and illegal gathering of wifi data, and its seemingly insatiable desire to know and to conquer the population of the world. We know these things, but we use Google anyway. Despite its flaws and despite the things it does that make us uneasy, I find the benefits of using Google, its video-sharing site YouTube and its email system Gmail to outweigh the risks. But what of Google+?

Setting aside nagging questions of whether you’d like to conceal your sex on Google’s social network, whether the network itself is more or less a threat to your privacy than Facebook and related media, and whether you want Google+ to know everybody you know (and to know that you know it knows), the only way to determine what you’re dealing with where a new social network is concerned … is to join it.

So I joined Google+.

First, I tried to sign in from Explorer, only to be told that Google no longer supports my browser. I downloaded Firefox and was confronted with this ominous declaration:

Google+ is in limited Field Trial. Things may not always work as intended. By using this product in Field Trial stage, you’re responsible for protecting yourself and your data from any risks, including data loss or disclosure. By signing up, you also agree that we may contact you to ask for feedback about the product.

So … Google+ may risk my data, but it’s my responsibility to protect that data, even as they spam me to ask about it. Well, I did volunteer. I pushed on. My profile photo was the one I was already using in my Google account. I don’t use Picasa photo albums to any great degree, or at least I didn’t think I did, but Google+ has a database of the photographs I used for Blogger (which it owns) and seems to think I should want all this linked to my account. If that was interesting, the Privacy Policy for Google+ was even more so:

We will record information about your activity – such as posts you comment on and the other users with whom you interact – in order to provide you and other users with a better experience on Google services. We may also collect information about you from other users. …

Then there’s the “+1 Button,” which is inarguably the Google+ analog of Facebook‘s “Like” button. It has its very own privacy policy that refers back to the first privacy policy:

The Google +1 button is a way for you to share information publicly with the world. … We will record information about your +1 activity in order to provide you and other users with a better experience on Google services. … In order to use the Google +1 button, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.

All if this sounds quite terrifying, but of course every time you turn around, Facebook is changing its privacy policy and user agreements, and we already know that it collects what information it can about you for more or less the same purposes. In Facebook’s case we assume this is to better enable advertisers to sell you things. In Google‘s case it’s apparently “to make connecting with people on the Web more like connecting with them in the real world.”

Remember that all of this is voluntary. You don’t have to use the services of Google, Google+ or Facebook if you don’t want to do so. You have no rights when making use of their online property unless they grant these to you. You are subject to their terms of service, within the legal boundaries of these sites’ corporate activities.

Even as we argue over privacy issues great and small, it’s deceptively easy to forget that business lies at the core of all these “social networking” activities. The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor asserts, perhaps melodramatically, that Google+ “forces us to question who owns our digital identity.” He writes, “Exposure on a site you don’t control may be worth more to you than lack of attention on a site you do,” describing the friction between Google+ and competitor social network Facebook. At issue was an application for Google+ that allows you to view your Facebook stream from the former. One assumes the folks in charge at Facebook are concerned that they may be subsumed by Google+, becoming first an ancillary network, then an adjunct to Google’s social media, then an afterthought.

Early adopters of Google+, who’ve been sending me emails to join them, may now connect me to their social circles. Together we will face this new potential threat to our privacy, even as we share status, trade photos, catch up, tune in or opt out. Thus far my soul remains unstolen, my personal data is no more exposed than it was, and my Picasa albums remain largely empty. Time will tell whether those facts remain unchanged. As with any social network, this one too will have its pluses … and its minuses.

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