Anger Leads to Apology From Google About Buzz (NYT)

New York Times – INTERNET http://www.nytimes.com for full article
By MIGUEL HELFT

Google moved quickly over the weekend to try to contain mounting criticism of Buzz, its social network, apologizing to users for features that were widely seen as endangering privacy and announcing product changes to address those concerns.

Google Inc.Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, wrote in a blog post on Saturday 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 merely suggest to new users a group of people they may want to follow or be followed by, he said.

Mr. Jackson, who said that the auto-follow feature had been intended 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,” Mr. Jackson wrote. “We’ll continue to do so.”

The start-up process for Buzz, which Google introduced on 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 first set of changes that Google announced on 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.

But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said 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,” Mr. Rotenberg said in an interview on Sunday.

The privacy concerns about Buzz, and Google’s rapid efforts to address its critics, echo episodes that have bedeviled other social networks, most notably Facebook. None of those events have 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,” Mr. Sullivan said. But privacy will continue to haunt Google, he said, and many people will point to the release of Buzz as an overreach by Google and a reason that the company could not be trusted.

The change in the start-up process for new users of Buzz was the most significant of a series of modifications that Mr. Jackson announced on Saturday.

Google also said that it would create a new Buzz tab in Gmail’s settings page to allow users to hide Buzz from Gmail completely. 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 and that some described as a game of whack-a-mole.

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, existing Buzz users will be directed to the new start-up process to give them a “second chance to review and confirm” the people they are following, Mr. Jackson said.

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