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EPIC Complains While Google Tries to Fix Buzz Privacy Snafus

Google’s new Buzz service is getting some unwelcome buzz from the privacy community. On Tuesday, the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Buzz “is a significant breach of consumers’ expectations of privacy.” EPIC, according to a press release on its website wants the FTC “to require Google to make the Buzz service fully opt-in, to stop using Gmail users’ private address book contacts to compile social networking lists, and to give Google users meaningful control over their personal data.”

The complaint was filed days after Todd Jackson, Google’s product manager for Buzz blogged “there’s been concern from some people who thought their contacts were being made public without their knowledge.” Jackson pledged to make changes to Buzz to correct this issue including making the option not to show your followers more visible, making it easier to block anyone who starts following you and providing “more clarity on which of your followers/people you follow can appear on your public profile.”

In an interview at Google headquarters on Tuesday, Google Vice President Bradley Horowitz said that the company is “making changes that will go a long way towards helping users and giving them transparency and control of how to block and how to expose their social graph.”

Product development process is social
He said that Google is “listening and reacting quickly” to what users are saying, and “reacting in days and in some cases hours.” Horowitz said that it is now clear to him and his team that “disclosures and speed bumps in place were not sufficient” and that “some user unhappiness resulted.” He was referring to an outpouring of criticism on blogs and, in some cases, on Buzz itself from users who felt that too much information about them was being shared.

Horowitz added that it’s essential for companies to get feedback from users when developing social media services such as Buzz, saying that many features that are now in Twitter were suggested by users rather than invented by the people who run the service. “My experience building social products is that you have to listen to the users. The product development process is itself social. … You can’t do it in a petri dish.”

Frequent Gmail contacts exposed
One complaint had to do with the way Google automatically created an initial set of followers based on people you communicate most often with via Gmail. The trouble with that is that the listing of who you follow on Buzz was initially made public, so that by exposing your Buzz followers, Google was also exposing the names of people you communicate with. That could be a problem if, for example, that list included a potential employer you were negotiating with while you’re still at your current job. You might not want your current employer to know you’re engaged in conversations with a competitor. It could also be an issue if you have a personal email relationship with someone that you might not want to disclose to a significant other.

Horowitz said Google will disable that feature, instead making it suggest possible friends to follow rather than having you follow them automatically.

Clearing out the clutter
Another issue with Buzz is that the amount of posts you see can be overwhelming. This is ironic because one of the points raised by Google when they announced the service last week is that Buzz would help users cut through the clutter. As Google co-founder Sergey Brin told me in a podcast interview I did for CNET news, the skill of “extracting signal from noise is one of our key competencies.”

Despite that intention, my experience with Buzz is that I am seeing far too many posts (or updates) often from people I have no interest in. For example, I follow some web-celebrities like podcaster Leo Laporte. I’m happy to read what Leo has to say but I’m also seeing updates from hundreds of people who also follow Leo. I’m sure these people have interesting things to say, but there is a limit as to how much I can digest. Horowitz said that Google is aware of that issue and is working to make it easier to hide comments from people you don’t follow.

Clearly, Buzz is a work in progress. I’m sure folks at Google hope that their developers can work faster than EPIC’s lawyers and are able to solve these issues before they — quite literally — turn Buzz’s privacy problems into a federal case.

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