As the Wall Street Journal reported today, Google’s development team has been working “feverishly” to tweak Buzz privacy settings. Earlier tonight, Google responded to widespread privacy concerns about Buzz, its new social messaging platform.
Todd Jackson, Buzz product manager, annouced on the Gmail blog that Google will make three updates to Buzz users’ startup experience to address the negative feedback it has received concerning its new social network. The previously announced Buzz improvements based upon user feedback simply did not go far enough to address legitimate privacy flaws or the uglier critiques in the blogosphere.
What has Google done?
- Google will add a tab specifically for Buzz in Gmail. While Google has not chosen to separate Buzz entirely from Gmail, as many readers thought might be the case after reading a story in SearchEngineLand. Instead, as Danny Sullivan reports there, Google may offer Buzz independently from gmail in the future. This move addresses user experience, creating a clear means to configure the social messaging platform or disable it.
- Buzz will no longer automatically connect Google Reader or Picassa. Both of these environments could be limited to closed networks of friends or contacts. When someone wrote “F*** You, Google,” its development team was apparently listening. According to the New York Times story on Buzz privacy settings, Google reached out to the aggrieved user and made changes to address some of her concerns.
- Crucially, Google Buzz will move from auto-follow to auto-suggest. Instead of simply connecting a new user to existing gmail contacts, Buzz will now present the user with suggested users from within that social network.
In other words, Google took Harry McCracken (and others) up on a simple solution to Buzz privacy problems: start with users following nobody by default.
Will it be enough to address the concerns of aggrieved users and convince bystanders to try Buzz? As Neil Gaiman tweeted, “Google DID work late. And DID fix it. I don’t think I’ll ever turn it on now, but good on them.” Or as Jay Rosen put it, “I waited, read the news about Google Buzz, absorbed the accounts and experiences of people I trust, and disabled it before ever opening it.”
Whatever the impact of tonight’s changes, Google has moved quickly to improve the areas of Buzz that have caused such angst online. As Gina Trapani, a self-described “Google fangirl” tweeted, “no doubt Buzz’s privacy issues are seriously problematic, but at least they’re iterating quickly and openly.”
The question that remains is why none of these privacy concerns were clear at the outset. “Google addressed most concerns – good job,” tweeted Evgeny Morozov. “But strange they hadn’t expected the backlash. What were they really thinking?”
Morozov, whose trenchant analysis of the “wrong kind of buzz around Google Buzz,” has been an prominent voice in highlighting the risks of using public social networks for citizens in countries where voicing dissent can carry a death penalty. As he wrote, “I am extremely concerned about hundreds of activists in authoritarian countries who would never want to reveal a list of their interlocutors to the outside world.”
This change may address that concern, though an “evil genie” may already be out of the bottle if intelligence services have already mined activists’ social networks. It’s not just citizens within authoritarian governments that had much to lose, after all. As danah boyd observed, “automated connections (a la Google Buzz) are particularly dangerous for at-risk populations.” Lawyers have other concerns: exposing clients through email addresses could violate confidentiality agreements.
Another tweak will help a bit with some of the above. As Jason Kincaid wrote at TechCrunch, “private e-mail addresses that were exposed in Buzz @replies are now covered up by asterisks.
That said, Google has now followed Facebook in making a major change to user privacy without testing it first or, crucially, allowing its users to opt out. Instead of making joining Buzz an option, Gmail users were added by default. And the only means users had to disable Buzz completely was akin to a nuclear option: deleting a Google profile.
I haven’t found the algorithmic authority or relevancy in Buzz that I’d expected yet. As Zach Seward tweeted, there’s “something to be said for Google Buzz: When @robinsloan hosts a fascinating discussion, you can link to it.” Buzz support for open data standards may prove to be both disruptive and beneficial for the open Web. Now that I’ve taken steps to hide my contact, I plan to continue using Google Reader to share news to my Google Profile and Buzz to participate in discussions.
That said, this brush with privacy may have tainted the launch of Buzz in much the same way that the death of a luger in Vancouver put a pall over the beginning of the Winter Olympics. Google may have more information about online users that any entity on the planet. By exposing those relationships without offering users the opportunity to opt-out of the new service on launch, the Internet giant has put trust in privacy at risk, an existential worry given that data that Google has about so many.
As Stan Lee put it, “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” The past week’s backlash has reminded millions of the stakes for such trust.