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Stung by critics, Google alters Buzz

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
By Miguel Helft
New York Times / February 15, 2010

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NEW YORK - Google scrambled over the weekend to try to contain mounting criticism of Buzz, its social network, apologizing to users for features widely seen as endangering privacy and announcing product changes.

Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, wrote in a blog post that Google had decided to alter one of the most-criticized features in Buzz: the ready-made circle of friends the service provided to new users based on their most frequent e-mail and chat contacts in Gmail.

Instead of automatically connecting people, Buzz will in the future suggest to new users a group of people they may want to follow or be followed by, he said.

Jackson, who said that the auto-follow feature had been designed to make it easy for people to get started on Buzz, acknowledged the criticism that was heaped on Google in the last few days.

“We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback,’’ Jackson wrote. “We’ll continue to do so.’’

The start-up for Buzz, which Google introduced Tuesday as its answer to Facebook and Twitter, drew angry responses on technology blogs and beyond, as users feared that the names of their e-mail correspondents would be publicly exposed. A set of changes that Google announced Thursday failed to quell the uproar.

Some critics said the latest modifications to Buzz, which is tightly coupled with Gmail, appeared to have addressed the most serious privacy concern.

“Turning off the auto-follow was a huge improvement,’’ Danny Sullivan, a longtime Google analyst and the editor of SearchEngineLand, said in an e-mail message.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that his organization 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,’’ Rotenberg said in an interview yesterday.

The privacy concerns about Buzz, and Google’s rapid efforts to address its critics, echo incidents that have bedeviled other social networks, most notably Facebook. None of those incidents has slowed the growth of Facebook, which recently said it had reached more than 400 million users. Gmail has 176 million users, according to the research firm comScore.

“I think the privacy issues earlier this week with Buzz will blow over and not harm the product in the long term,’’ Sullivan said. But privacy will continue to haunt Google, he said, and many people will point to the release of Buzz as a reason that the company could not be trusted.

Google also said that it would create a new Buzz tab in Gmail’s settings page to allow users to hide Buzz from Gmail.

The page gives users the option to disable Buzz, deleting their posts and removing their Google profile, which in many cases listed publicly their circle of contacts in Buzz.

The new feature could address concerns that disabling Buzz and removing a public profile was a multistep process that confused many users.

Google also will no longer automatically connect public Picasa albums and items shared on Google Reader, another feature that had been widely criticized by some users and privacy advocates.

In the next two weeks, Buzz users will be directed to the new start-up to give them a “second chance to review and confirm’’ the people they are following, Jackson said.

The changes Google announced will be imposed in the next few days. While it is too early to gauge Buzz’s success, Google said tens of millions of people had tried the service in its first 48 hours.

Sullivan of SearchEngineLand said that the level of activity on Buzz appeared to be significant.

“I suspect Google might have a minor hit on its hands already,’’ he said.