Barely a week after its release and Buzz has already – surprise, surprise! – pissed a bunch of people off in a huge way. Apparently Google’s sorry, but it doesn’t look like apologies are going to be enough this time.
The Problem with Buzz
The biggest issue with Buzz is that it shared a bunch of highly private information without asking. Criticisms mostly circled around a user’s contacts being publicly revealed as well as their own e-mail addresses being broadcasted anytime someone directly addressed them in a Buzz with the @ symbol.
Defenders of Buzz claim the issues were trivial (what’s wrong with extending your personal network?!) and Google has since altered certain features as well as set up a “war room” for tracking and responding to Buzz complaints as quickly as possible.
But the offensive team is much heavier, and believes issues are far from trivial. Just ask Evgeny Morozov, a researcher on the impact of the Internet on totalitarian regimes. He wrote the following in a blog post for Foreign Policy: “If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government."
For Real, Big G F’d Up
How could Google have missed such an obvious flaw? Word is because they strayed from their release method. Usually, Google’s new products and services undergo what Google calls the Trusted Testers program. The program is primarily made up of friends and family members of Google employees. They get early access to services and provide feedback before the beta is even considered.
This was not the case with Google Buzz.
Rather than reaching out to the tester program, Google admits to solely using Buzz internally among employees. “Of course, getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild,” said Todd Jackson, Buzz product manager. He also admitted that many users of Buzz were “rightfully upset” and said Google was “very, very sorry.”
“We know we need to improve things,” he added.
What Strike Is This?
We can’t help but be reminded of a similar Google slip up: When Chrome was released into the world, everyone was worried about the unique ID embedded in each copy of the browser. The complaint was that Google could use Chrome to collect huge amounts of behavioral data and use it to erode any remaining semblance of online privacy.
The identifier itself is automatically created at the time of install, but the use of the tracking service (which records how often a user clicks the back space button and how many web pages are loaded) is entirely optional. However, like with Buzz, it doesn’t help that the prompt to choose the tracking service or not isn’t on a Settings page. In fact, it looks exactly like a user agreement—you check it, click Install and you’re off.
Bad News for Google?
“It is still early, and we have a long list of improvements on the way,” Jackson continued. “We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user transparency and control top of mind.”
For now, Google's changes include making the option to hide your contacts a lot more visible. There are also now links for blocking Buzz followers on your profile page, and it's supposedly clearer which of your followers have public profiles and which of them have private ones.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to be as easy as admitting a mistake and apologizing for it. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his organization had planned to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Yeah, it's that serious.
Other Gmailers are refusing to turn Buzz on until the pandemonium is over and Google gets its big head out of the total-transparency cloud. We're sure we'll see more improvements to Buzz as the story continues to play out, but whether Google has ultimately screwed themselves on the social networking front remains to be seen.