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Google updates Buzz social-networking service amid privacy concerns

By THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

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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.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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