Google in fresh retreat on Buzz

Google was forced over the weekend to retreat again on its new Buzz social networking service after its first attempt to quell a growing outcry over privacy issues failed to silence its critics.

The company also issued a public apology over the affair, which has given a new and very public focus to long-simmering concerns about the amount of information Google collects about its users and how it uses it.

In the latest about-face, Google said that Buzz would no longer automatically set up an online social network for users of its Gmail service by drawing from the list of people they most frequently exchange e-mail with. That feature, announced last week when the service was launched, was roundly criticised in the blogosphere and among privacy advocates.

Since Buzz social networks are made public by default, it meant that a user's closest private e-mail contacts would be exposed publicly under the guise of being a list of "friends", said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Speaking before Google backtracked, he said he planned to make a formal complaint to US regulators over the matter.

The backlash over Buzz, and Google's scramble to contain it, has exposed a flaw in its approach to launching services.

Announcing Buzz, which will play a central part in its efforts to match Facebook and Twitter, Sergey Brin, co-founder, said the service was likely to evolve rapidly to reflect how people wanted to use it.

While that trial and error approach has generally succeeded in making Google's services highly responsive, it has left the company open to criticism on privacy, since information about millions of its users was exposed publicly before it had a chance to respond.

"We've heard your feedback loud and clear," Todd Jackson, product manager, said in a blog post on Saturday. He admitted Google's decision to make automatic user lists public "created a great deal of concern", and that an earlier attempt to deal with the problem by making it easier for users to hide their information "was clearly not enough". Google said it would give Gmail users, who are automatically enrolled in Buzz, the power to disable it.

"We quickly realised 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," he said.

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