Google admits Buzz flaws

Matt Bowman · February 16, 2010 · Short URL:

After a fierce backlash over privacy, Google admits errors, announces changes to its social service

 Since launching on February 9, Google Buzz has inspired about as much outrage as Facebook did in its first six years--and that's saying a lot. Granted, a strong fanboy contingent is also forming, but the backlash against perceived privacy breaches constitutes one of the biggest PR firestorms Mountain View has faced since agreeing to work with Chinese censors. 

In an interview with BBC News, Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson said "Google has apologised - we're very sorry for the concern we caused." Specifically, Jackson listed the following problems and changes:

Problems admitted:

  • Google tested the service internally with up to 20,000 Googlers, but bypassed tests with Gmail users in the wild.
  • While many services are tested by the Google Trusted Tester program, a network of friends and family of employees who are given access prior to official releases, Buzz was not tested by this program.

Todd Jackson, Buzz Product Manager acknowledge to the BBC, that many of the "tens of millions" of users were "rightfully upset" and that the firm was "very, very sorry." "We know we need to improve things."

Google’s mea culpas have not been very specific—at least not as specific as the many issues raised by users. Chief among the complaints was Google’s decision to automatically generate, and make public, a user’s connections based on the people they most frequently email. This default setting could reveal a journalist’s sources, confidential business contacts or a political dissident’s connections, data that could be particularly interesting to oppressive governments cracking down on social activists.

On February 12, at a company-wide meeting at Google HQ, the company hashed out a number of changes.

Confirmed Changes:

  • Rather than automatically generate a user’s connections, the service will now only suggest people a user might want to be friends with.
  • Buzz will be easier to disable altogether.
  • Buzz will no longer automatically connect with people’s Picasa albums and Google Reader.

Possible Changes:

  • Google has set up a “war room” at Google HQ to bring engineers and product managers together to decide what changes to make.
  • The company will - Google is contemplating a separate service that would not be part of Gmail, for people who use a different email provider

While the backlash has been adamant, widespread and immediate, the problems by no means constitute a deathblow to the new service. Facebook elicited similar user revolts at various times by revealing information that was perceived as too private even for friends’ eyes… but users quickly adjusted their habits and the service has done nothing but grow astronomically.

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