Google (GOOG) moved to stem the growing privacy furor over its new Buzz social networking product on Saturday, announcing that new users would no longer automatically follow and be followed by the email contacts in their Gmail accounts.
Google integrated Buzz, introduced on Feb. 9, into its Gmail service, and many users were shocked to discover that their private contacts were broadcast publicly. The episode is an embarrassment for Google, which many privacy advocates already view skeptically.The central issue in the Buzz case is that new users were automatically set up with a publicly displayed social network culled from their contact lists. Incredibly, Google saw no problem with turning personal email correspondents into the basis of a public social network.
But on Saturday, Google was forced to acknowledge the launch had been botched.
"We Didn't Get Everything Quite Right"
"It's been an exciting and challenging week for the Buzz team," Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, wrote in company blog post. "We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right. We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so."
From the moment Google launched Buzz on Tuesday, privacy experts, lawyers and journalists have cited privacy concerns in criticizing the service.
"This is one of Google's biggest blunders," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an D.C.-based advocacy group, told The New York Times on Friday. "People thought what they had was an address book for an e-mail program, and Google decided to turn that into a friends list for a new social network. E-mail is one of the few things that people understand to be private."
In response to the criticism, Google's Jackson wrote: "We've heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised."
Starting this week, Jackson wrote, "instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked 'Follow selected people and start using Buzz.'"
Concern for Dissidents in Repressive States
Google's apparent failure to comprehend Buzz's privacy implications comes as the company has made very public statements about combating Chinese censorship and hacking. Last month Google said it was the victim of a cyber-attack that targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists.
Evgeny Morozov, a Georgetown University researcher on technology and geopolitics, suggested that Google had actually put dissidents in repressive countries at risk.
"If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government," Morozov wrote in a blog post for Foreign Policy. "They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters."
Wrong Kind of Killer App
Even as Google sought to contain the spreading controversy, technology experts and Google watchers were left shaking their heads at such a mistake. Some reporters and lawyers expressed concern that the confidentiality of sources and clients could be compromised.
"Who knew that Google's next "email killer" product would be aimed at killing trust in their own Gmail service?" wrote attorney Don Crouse in a widely read post on the Supreme Court of Texas legal blog.
Google may have mastered Web search, but when it comes to social networking, it needs to go back to the drawing board.
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