While Google recently received kudos for protecting user privacy and resisting government inquiries, some are calling recent updates to its instant messaging service a big step backwards.

At the I/O conference in San Francisco last week, Google announced that it would replace the Talk platform with Hangouts. Privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation say that the change represents a retrograde move for Google in protecting its users’ privacy.

The Talk platform was an open platform that allowed users to chat with other message services and host their own chat servers. According to EFF, this “lets the services compete on important factors like quality, uptime, or respect for user privacy.” Google even boasted about the openness of the Talk platform, saying many popular IM networks don’t offer users the same freedom.

Hangouts users, on the other hand, can only chat with other people who use Hangouts. Hangouts doesn’t support off-the-record encryption, which raises privacy and security issues. So, Google users will no longer be able to use their chat program to communicate with users who drop off because of these concerns.

Hangouts also prevents users from disabling “chat history,” which archives chats to the user’s Gmail account. If a user doesn’t want the chat accessible through Gmail, they must disable the “hangout history” for each individual contact.

Users concerned with privacy can still use external clients like Pidgin, Adium and Gibberbot to encrypt messages. The catch is that these users will not be able to disable hangout history, which is only a function of the official Hangouts client. In other words, Google users will now need to make a choice with chat: off-the-record encryption or turning off Gmail archives. Users can no longer have both. 

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