Last Tuesday, Google announced its new social networking tool, Google Buzz, to mixed reviews. Google Buzz allows users to share status updates, images, and videos through a new tab in Gmail, and will also be available on the iPhone and Android based phones. This new feature looks like Google’s attempt to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Although many users generally seem to like Buzz, after it launched Google was inundated with complaints over privacy concerns.

The problem: when a new user created a profile in Buzz, it automatically set up a list of followers and people to follow selected from the people the user emails and chats with the most using Gmail. The default setting made that list public, so it basically allowed anyone who viewed a user’s profile to see who the user emails and chats with the most. Many people balked at having that information made public. This also highlights one of the problems with building a social networking service aroumd email. For a lot of people, the contacts they email the most may not necessarily be their closest friends. This is especially true for those who use Gmail primarily for work purposes rather than as a personal account. Some journalists and lawyers were particularly concerned that making their contacts public could compromise the confidentiality of their sources and clients.

On Saturday, a product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz apologized for the problems Buzz has caused, and since the launch last week Google has made a couple of rounds of privacy-related changes. Perhaps most importantly, Google Buzz now operates on an auto-suggest rather than auto-follow model. Users can choose to accept or reject the suggested connections. Although the main problem with Google Buzz appears to have been fixed, maybe the developers should have thought this issue through ahead of time. It would save a lot of trouble if Google, and other companies for that matter, would make similar new features involving potentially private information opt-in rather than opt-out.

Allyson Brown

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