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Google Buzz: A mea culpa

Maggie Shiels | 09:37 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

There are a thousand ways to say "sorry", but we all know that actions speak louder than words. Since Google launched its Buzz social network last week, there has been a constant stream of criticism.

The majority has centred on issues of privacy and Google's presumption that it knows best about what users want, instead of letting people work that out for themselves. Product manager Todd Jackson acknowledges as much in a blog post this weekend:

"With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch. However, many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people."

Google BuzzOne major bugbear, which I mentioned in an earlier post, has been the decision to have users automatically follow everyone in their Gmail contacts. That will now be replaced with an auto-suggest feature. Buzz will now show a list of your contacts and let you decide whether you wish to follow them or not. It does seem fairly obvious, doesn't it?

In essence that means any communication you have been having with a rival company about a lucrative job offer will remain private - as it should. Same with e-mails to an ex-partner, a current paramour or an illicit liaison!

Another bone of contention has been privacy.

The auto-suggest solution helps, but there has been concern over the fact that Buzz automatically connected public Picasa picture albums and links shared by users on Google Reader. That is all going to change with this series of updates; Mr Jackson is keen that he and Google are seen to be bending over backwards and reacting quickly to get things right:

"Just to be clear: Buzz only automatically connected content that was already public, so if you had previously shared photos in an 'Unlisted' album or set your Google Reader shared items as 'Protected', no one except the people you'd explicitly allowed to see your stuff has been able to see it. But due to your feedback Buzz will no longer connect these sites automatically."

disable_buzz226.gifAnother feature Mr Jackson is highlighting is how easy it is to now disable Buzz and not be a part of Google's new social-media venture.

There is little doubt that Google has stumbled here, but why?

I had lunch with someone from the privacy sector who said it seemed like a case of over-eager engineers coming up with a product that they loved and believed in but which was pushed out without thinking about the wider ramifications.

At the technology news site Cnet, writer Chris Matyszczyk is not quite as easy-going regarding Google's geek set:

"Wasn't this outcry entirely predictable? Weren't these settings merely the behavior of machines - or, at least, machineheads - who didn't stop to think for one moment how real people might react, how real people choose to behave? There seem to be far too many people in the tech world who are fond of the notion that privacy is no longer the social norm."

Google has, it should be said, acted quickly and decisively in dealing with the criticism and in trying to resolve the issues. Mr Jackson tries to pour oil on troubled waters and even uses the "s" word. Perhaps anticipating further tweaking ahead, his post ends:

"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."

And while these changes and the mea culpa should assuage some of the anger and frustration among users, some leading lights in the privacy community are refusing to roll over.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his organisation still intended to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission this week pending its review of Google's changes.

"Even with these changes, there is still the concern that Gmail users are being driven into a social networking service that they didn't sign up for," Mr. Rotenberg said in an interview with the New York Times.

Given how much information Google already has about its users, and given the scrutiny the company is increasingly coming under from federal regulators, Google needs to go that extra mile when it comes to privacy and to be ahead of the curve when it launches new products and features.

Whether users will forgive this stumble is another thing. It will certainly take a while to live down and will continue to serve as a warning to all within the company when pushing products out the door.


  • 1. At 11:09am on 15 Feb 2010, Kyle wrote:

    I'm surprised at all the fuss, being automatically set up to follow my friends, and my Google Reader, Picassa and Blogger accounts being linked was the one thing I really liked about Buzz. It made starting to use it that much easier, as getting all my accounts linked together on Twitter was a real hassle.

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  • 2. At 11:33am on 15 Feb 2010, Sam Radford wrote:

    Perhaps the other angle on this is that Google DID expect this. They were happy to have a bit of controversy (aka publicity) to launch the product and create as a big a 'buzz' as possible. Most people aren't worrying about their privacy, they're thinking, 'oh, Google has a new service?'

    Of course there's a few people who are really upset about this, there always are. But all the privacy mistakes Facebook have made don't seem to have stopped 400 million signing up with them.

    Honestly, I think Google are just happy with noise they've created. Not only that, they get the opportunity to look good with the speed they are responding and making changes. I don't think Google are very upset about anything that's happened. They're not dumb, but they may just be a little bit evil! :)

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  • 3. At 4:35pm on 15 Feb 2010, quixote wrote:

    I've seen many commenters whose attitude seems to be, "Privacy? Who cares? I wasn't using my rights anyway."

    I don't get it. Are they so young they've never dealt with a hostile co-worker, a hostile boss, the neighborhood gossip? They wouldn't care if their whole class at university knows they had treatment against lice last summer?

    If you have no privacy, you have no rights at all. None that you can actually use.

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  • 4. At 6:57pm on 15 Feb 2010, tonbar wrote:

    Good to see some balanced reporting about Google at last. Yes they do make mistakes, some of them very big. They are going to own a massive amount of data on people as the years go by and there current "we're so friendly and nice" approach may not be sufficient when they get to the point where they dominate everyone else in this area and start believing their own publicity & generous press coverage.

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  • 5. At 9:42pm on 15 Feb 2010, Green Soap wrote:

    Maybe in this climate of apology, Maggie could grace us with a Sorry for the past years Apple, and Twitter-centric output?

    Nah. Not holding my breath.

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  • 6. At 10:11am on 16 Feb 2010, Steve wrote:

    Buzz has finally convinced me to start looking at alternatives to Google for e-mail, calendars and contacts. It's one thing when a service like Facebook messes up on privacy as all that reveals about me is information I've already vetted to put in the public domain (any social networking service should be treated as a public service IMO). When the company that handles my private data not only makes a big mis-step but also starts creating a network of people that may have only the slightest connection to me automatically... well, then it's time to start looking elsewhere. It's a shame because Google's service is very good and its core products are excellent but I really don't feel comfortable having that data sat on their servers anymore.

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  • 7. At 11:27am on 16 Feb 2010, hubert huzzah wrote:

    Why does Google presume that you want all the bits of data that you put onto their servers linked up? It is not only a matter of a controversy about privacy but also about the core business of Google: search.

    When Google searches the internet for "music" it creates links to possibly millions of pages. When Pirate Bay did this, they were prosecuted because their search only led to "music" that was owned by the music industry. This encapsulates something about the core business of Google. It is search that treats people as a commercial commons. That is, the public are treated as having no rights to their own data but are merely a source of data. When this is reversed and the public treat commerce as a public commons then they engage lawyers to protect their "commercial interest". The internet is being used to create a class of information chattels because Google - and Facebook, Bebo and Myspace and so on and on - have the financial clout to defend their "property rights".

    Until it becomes recognised that the data individuals create is their own property - even if they create it in ways that are standard, such as well formed URLS - then commercial interests will simply use the internet to obtain a source of free "market intelligence" and a captive consumer audience. This was the problem BT faced with Phorm: they presumed too much about personally owned data.

    The argument that "you put it onto a private server therefore they own it" is one that is frequently made. Public Rights of way exist across private property: there is a right to roam. That right to public commons access in cyberspace - regardless of the ownership of the hardware - is jealously guarded by the likes of Google in favour of Google. You only get access to "their" resources if you obey their rules. One of which is a tacit commitment to shareholder value. Yet, Google downloads a vast amount of information onto your computer each time you visit their site. Banner adverts are downloaded, uninvited and without fee. Again reflecting the use of the internet as a commercial commons.

    The issue of privacy and Google's overt failure to protect privacy is simply bargaining. It shows how little trust should be placed in Google for the holding of data that might be searched. Regardless of the blandishments and promises of Google, the fact that they never asked before they presented the service is a clear demonstration that the social networking site was never designed with any social purpose in mind. It was designed as an enclosure of the commons of cyberspace. Where personal information is abducted from personal ownership and - because it is possible to make connections - transformed into commercially lucrative data without your permission. This is outline of the argument that the music industry offered against Pirate Bay. But the argument against Pirate Bay was made against the presumption that commercial data is privileged over private data. It is not.

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  • 8. At 10:14pm on 17 Feb 2010, SheffTim wrote:

    I've not tried Buzz and probably won't. It doesn't service a need I perceive for myself.

    But, the privacy issues seen to have now been fixed:
    "Google Buzz Gets Some Serious Privacy Tweaks"

    Buzz is also reported to be picking up serious numbers of users.

    Mashable, a site which follows social media trends, is impressed:
    "To ignore Buzz would be a costly mistake, because Google has finally created the definition of a game-changer."

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