Google Buzz Privacy Backlash Not Anticipated, Google Says

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-02-17

Google Buzz Privacy Backlash Not Anticipated, Google Says

The Google executive overseeing Google Buzz, the product that triggered perhaps the biggest privacy backlash ever against the search engine, said Google did not anticipate the strong protest over user privacy the company faced in the week since Buzz launched.

Google launched Google Buzz Feb. 9 to let users post status updates, links, photos and videos within the application that leverages Gmail users' e-mail and chat contacts as a ready-made social network.   

Within the first 24 hours of using the product, several users discovered that Buzz surfaced the e-mail and chat contacts Buzz users follow, or who follow them, on Buzz users' Google profile pages.

Google has taken several steps to ameliorate the ensuing privacy backlash, making privacy controls more visible and making the service auto-suggest instead of auto-follow.

Still, the brouhaha reached its zenith when the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint about Buzz with the Federal Trade Commission Feb. 16.   

eWEEK asked Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management at Google and the executive who presided over the creation of Buzz, whether Google created Buzz with blinders on, failing to vet it properly with the public.

Horowitz denied this, but admitted to eWEEK Feb. 16 that Google did not anticipate the outrage and ire leveled at the company regarding the privacy issues. Horowitz acknowledged users were "unhappy," which led Google to work around the clock to address concerns.

"While the outcome was not something I would have wished for or predicted, the remedies and response of the team has really indicated to me that we have a great core competency at Google in terms of being able to develop social software, to be in dialogue with our users and to rapidly iterate and improve the product," Horowitz said. 

It's true the privacy furor surrounding Buzz forced Google to quickly make some changes to improve user privacy.

However, Google Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson told BBC News that while Google tested Buzz with its 20,000-plus employees, it failed to run Buzz through the Trusted Tester program, a network of friends and family of Google employees who are given access to products before they launch.

Buzz Will Continue to Evolve

Jackson's point that Google failed to extend Buzz beyond Google employees suggests that Buzz was perhaps not initially created with the intention of fostering dialogue between itself and users. Rather, Google was forced to switch gears and engage in dialogue with users when complaints began to mount.

Horowitz stressed that his team isn't through making the necessary improvements that will make the millions of Buzz users more comfortable with the service.

"We don't think the right way to build a product like this is under wraps and you release a finished experience to the world. We think the right way to build this is to be in dialogue with users and rapidly iterate the social nature of this product," Horowitz said. "It's developed in a social dialogue between developers, users and Google."

Horowitz said Google is still weighing user feedback, but declined to say what sort of additional changes his team might make to meet user requests.

However, more granular privacy controls, such as filters and other features to let users turn off Buzz are likely in the works.

"The feedback spans the gamut from better, clearer privacy improvements to issues around what it's like to follow very popular people on Buzz to feature requests down to the granular level of moving buttons and things like that," Horowitz said.

One of those changes could be to create a standalone Buzz product in addition to the current Gmail-based Buzz. Horowitz said that while he had no specific plans to share, this standalone version of Buzz would hook directly into the current version of Buzz in Gmail, scraping Gmail users' Gmail and chat contact lists for Buzz contacts.

"The right way to do that would be seamless integration, so just like our mobile Buzz product integrates seamlessly with the desktop version in Gmail, any standalone instance of Gmail should be completely compatible, provide the same interaction, etc. So I would want it to stand on its own and have all the great features Buzz has as are present in Gmail."

Forgetting the privacy woes for a moment, Buzz has been quite successful. Horowitz said tens of millions of users have engaged Buzz, creating more than 9 million posts and comments, with 200 posts per minute from mobile phones.     

T.A. McCann, CEO of Gist, which makes an application that helps users manage their contacts in Microsoft Outlook, Google Gmail and, said Gist is already letting users add Buzz feeds to their news feeds in Gist. Here's how.

"We obviously agree 100 percent with blending the Web and the social inbox together," McCann said.

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