Google Criticized for 'Buzz' Privacy Faults

Dennis Faas's picture

Google has announced it will ask all users to reconfirm their preferred privacy settings on its social networking site 'Buzz'. It follows a controversial launch in which many believed, correctly or otherwise, that their privacy had been compromised.

Buzz is Google's rival to Facebook and Twitter. It's integrated into Gmail and allows users to follow and reply to posts made by people they decide to follow on the service.

The service also allows users to share information from other Google-owned services such as Google Reader (an RSS newsreader) and picture-sharing site Picasa. It was clearly designed to encourage users to spend more time in Gmail and thus be more attractive to advertisers.

Automated 'Followers' Idea Backfires

The big problem with the launch was that Google decided to "help" users by automatically adding in some online followers from their email address book. This annoyed many users as they felt some of their information was now being shared with other people without their permission.

In one extreme case, a woman said she was automatically made a Buzz contact of an abusive ex-partner who only appeared as a regular email contact because they had been sending harassing messages.

FTC Commissioner Critical of Service

To make things worse, many users were in the dark about the implications of the Buzz service, with some believing their entire email history had been exposed. Others found opt-out settings but, because of the close integration, believed that turning off Buzz could only be done by quitting the email service altogether.

A privacy watchdog and several politicians complained about the move to the Federal Trade Commission. Although not a formal response to the complaints, one commissioner later said "I do not believe consumer privacy [considerations] played any significant role in the release of Buzz." (Source:

Google Confirms Test Failure

Google later admitted it had only tested the service on its own staff rather than the usual test panel of employees' friends and family. That may have meant the results were distorted, as Google workers may have been more tech-savvy and less concerned about privacy implications than the general public.

Shortly after the launch, Google responded to criticism by simplifying the processes for blocking "followers," changing privacy settings or quitting Buzz altogether, but this only applied to new Buzz users. The firm also dropped the automated following system and replaced it with a list of suggested contacts.

This week's announcement goes a step further: the firm will now ask every user to specifically change or reconfirm their privacy option settings. That move, albeit late in the day, will go some way towards answering criticism that both Buzz and other social networking services need to adopt a policy of making all user data as private as possible until the user specifically says otherwise. (Source:

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