Google Buzz Recast as Auto-suggest to Quell Privacy Fears

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-02-14

Google Feb. 13 replaced the auto-follow feature in Google Buzz with auto-suggest to assuage major privacy concerns about the social service. In effect, users will be able to choose whom they follow on Buzz, making the service opt-in.

Launched directly into Gmail Feb. 9, Google Buzz lets Gmail users post status updates, inline videos, photos and other content.

Shortly after launch, it quickly became clear the company didn't consider the ramifications of setting the service up to automatically follow users. Buzz upset users by automatically exposing their Gmail contacts through their Google profiles.

What Google believed would be a fresh breath of expediency turned into a public relations nightmare, with Google backpedaling Feb. 11 by adding a checkbox to warn users that Buzz will show the names of Gmail contacts they are following and people following them on their Google profile.

This didn't do it for most users, some of whom called for an opt-in model to let people choose to use Buzz or not. Google Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson acknowledged this in a contrite blog post Feb. 13:

"On Thursday, after hearing that people thought the checkbox for choosing not to display this information publicly was too hard to find, we made this option more prominent. But that was clearly not enough. So starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you e-mail and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked "Follow selected people and start using Buzz."

Jackson said that the "tens of millions of you who have already started using Buzz" will be shown this new startup experience in the next few weeks so that they may review the people they're following.

Those who want to review this list now may go to the Buzz tab, click "Following XX people" and unfollow folks. Users may also opt out of the service from the edit profile page.

Google made two more changes to Buzz.

Buzz will no longer connect users' public Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader shared items. This came after one woman who had been the victim of domestic abuse complained that her abusive ex-husband could see her content through Buzz's connection with Google Reader.

Google also said it added a Buzz tab to Gmail Settings to let users hide Buzz from Gmail or disable it. There will also be a link to these settings from the initial startup page. This comes after many users complained that they couldn't easily see how to turn off Buzz; previously, users had to turn Buzz off from their Google account page.

With these changes, Google made Buzz opt-in and made it much easier for users who complained that Buzz was too noisy or violated their privacy to opt out. Finally, Jackson offered the following apology to irate users:

"We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right. We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so."

The question now is whether Google has alienated existing Buzz users enough to make them choose not to follow anyone on Buzz at all, or even to opt out of the service. Gmail has 176 million users and needs every one of them to use Buzz if Google is going to challenge Facebook in the social networking space. 

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