Google Feb. 11 acknowledged the backlash of privacy concerns over its new Google Buzz social service by making privacy controls in the service more transparent.
Google launched Google Buzz in Gmail, offering a portion of its 176 million Gmail users the ability to post status updates, links, photos and videos. Because Buzz is geared toward making Gmail a more social application, it was automatically set up to follow the people whom users e-mail and chat with most.
Gmail users can follow people whose Buzz posts they choose to see. By default, the setting was public, but users can opt out of displaying the full list of people following them and whom they are following.
However, users able to access Buzz complained when they realized their Buzz contacts were visible in their public Google profile until they edited their default settings to make Buzz lists private in their profiles. Buzz's latitude with user privacy drew more than a few comparisons to Facebook, whose disastrous Beacon service upset individuals with its blatant disregard for user privacy.
Google Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson, who introduced the service at an event at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters Feb. 9, noted that, while Google was transparent during the Buzz setup process, Buzz contacts will be displayed in users' public profile:
""We heard from people that the checkbox for choosing not to display this information was too hard to find, and based on this feedback, we've changed the notice to make it very clear. We will roll these changes out to all Gmail users later today.""
To wit, Google made three key changes to make privacy in Buzz more visible. First, there is now a checkbox in the profile setup that makes users acknowledge that Buzz will show the names of the contacts they are following and people following them on their Google profile. Users who opt not to check this box won't be able to use Buzz until they do.
Second, Google has added "Block" links to the list of people following them, which will work whether or not they've already created profiles for themselves. Previously, users could only block people from following them after they had created a Google profile.
Finally, Google has added clarity on which followers and people Buzz users follow can appear on their Google profile.
In the first run, Google displayed a list of all the people who would be following users once they created a Google profile. Previously, only those contacts who had already created a public profile would show up on a user's public follower list.
Now Google is explicitly distinguishing between what followers have Google profiles, which will show in a public list of followers, and keep a running count of what followers don't have Google profiles. These people won't be visible on a Buzz list until they create a profile.
These changes should go a way toward easing users' privacy concerns, but if the lesson from Facebook's Beacon advertising effort is any indication, Google may have to fine-tune Buzz's privacy controls some more until users are satisfied.
Meanwhile, Buzz pickup has been strong despite the privacy furor. Jackson said "tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out, creating over 9 million posts and comments," along with 200-plus posts per minute from mobile phones.
Mobile is obviously a key part of Google's reach with Buzz.