Google updates Buzz social-networking service amid privacy concerns

Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    The Internet giant has tweaked the sign-up process to make the
    opt-out option clearer and made it easier to block people from
    following users.

    Actress Felicia Day is an avid user of Google Inc.’s Gmail. But definitely not a Google Buzz user.

    After the new service popped into her in box, she wrote: "Disabling now. Heart attack."

    Day, who created a popular Web show called "The Guild," was not alone
    in her privacy concerns. Google support forums have been filled with
    questions and complaints. Commented one: "Don’t set up a new
    application and have me ‘following’ a bunch of randoms from my address
    book. That’s not a ‘feature,’ that’s a ‘mistake.’ "

    The Internet giant this week added a service to Gmail that allows
    millions of its users to share updates, photos, videos and more with
    people they e-mail and chat with the most. But users soon discovered
    that unless they changed their privacy settings, Buzz publicly shares
    their contacts.

    Google has since taken steps to assuage its Gmail users but it has
    continued to come under fire from privacy watchdogs, who say the
    company has not gone far enough.

    "This is one of Google’s biggest blunders," said Marc Rotenberg,
    executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
    Rotenberg said his group planned to file a complaint with the Federal
    Trade Commission alleging an unfair and deceptive trade practice.

    One blogger used this example to express her outrage: "I use my private
    Gmail account to e-mail my boyfriend and my mother. There’s a BIG
    drop-off between them and my other ‘most frequent’ contacts. You know
    who my third most frequent contact is? My abusive ex-husband."

    Google on Thursday tweaked the Buzz sign-up process to make the opt-out
    option clearer and made it easier to block people from following users.
    It encouraged users to provide more feedback. Google also said it was
    considering setting up a stand-alone Buzz.

    "We are open to improving Buzz more and to making other changes," Google spokeswoman Victoria Katsarou said.

    Critics say Google, stung by the privacy backlash, is taking steps in
    the right direction, but they contend that Google should ask for
    permission before automatically including contacts in Buzz.

    "Google shows continued tone deafness to the very important privacy
    rights of consumers," John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said.

    The backlash is unusual for Google, which has substantial brand loyalty
    that it says comes from acting in the best interests of its users. The
    company relies on that loyalty. It runs the world’s most popular search
    engine and is expanding into a broad array of services and devices.

    Rotenberg said Google might have overreached as it attempted to break
    into the competitive social networking space, in which it has been
    outpaced and outmaneuvered by Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

    "When you sign up for Facebook, you expect certain things. When you
    sign up for Twitter, you expect certain things. When you sign up for
    Gmail, you expect e-mail. So when Google turned people’s e-mail contact
    list into their social network friends list, they got understandably
    upset," he said.

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