If Google took a calculated risk when it launched Buzz earlier this year, hoping it would be worth a few privacy complaints to rapidly build a user base, it was likely one of the worst miscalculations the company has ever made. If, on the other hand, Google truly didn't anticipate the privacy problems its system would cause, can it be trusted to manage privacy issues properly in the future?
In one of its biggest blunders ever, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) whipped up a storm of customer privacy complaints earlier this year when it launched its social networking service, Buzz. After making a series of changes to the profile set-up procedure during ensuing weeks, Google now is asking all of the earliest Buzz users to revisit their settings and confirm them.
Starting Monday, anyone with a Buzz account that pre-dates mid-February will be asked to confirm "key Buzz settings," Google spokesperson Victoria Katsarou told TechNewsWorld.
However, this may not be enough to save what has been a fundamentally flawed rollout.
"Google has violated people's trust, and that's not an easy thing to earn back," Jennifer Golbeck, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, told TechNewsWorld.
When Buzz first came onto the scene, many users were angered by a set-up procedure that apparently glossed over important information, such as who would be included in one's social network and who would be able to see those lists. Clicking to activate a Buzz account also activated a feature called "auto-following." Through auto-following, Buzz selected contacts from the user's Gmail address list and created both a list for the user to follow and a list of people who would be following the user's updates.
Google maintained that users were indeed informed that such lists were being automatically created and defended itself using language that the company reiterated to TechNewsWorld on Monday: "Some people didn't find that clear enough," Katsarou said, when speaking of the original set-up procedure.
That is, according to Google, the problem was the fault of users who did not read their set-up screens.
Too Little Too Late
Nevertheless, the Buzz development team acted quickly to make changes. In mid-February, Todd Jackson, Google Buzz product manager, published a blog post announcing that auto-following would be shut off and replaced by an "auto-suggest" feature.
A screen of contacts now is displayed during Buzz setup. Users can click or unclick contacts, creating a list they want to follow. They also can choose whether or not their social network lists are displayed in their public Google profile.
The change being made now will affect those users who signed up for Buzz before the February 13 modifications, explained Katsarou. Those early adopters will be asked to review their settings and confirm which contacts they want to follow and which information to display in their profiles.
In addition, the company has posted a series of videos on YouTube with tips on using Buzz, Katsarou said.
This change may go some way toward assuring existing Buzz users that their privacy concerns are being addressed, according to Golbeck. However, Google has missed a one-time opportunity to capitalize on its enormous user base to launch a widely used and trusted social networking tool, she stressed.
Breaking Up Not Hard to Do
Certainly Google is not the first social network service provider to encounter user outrage over privacy issues, Golbeck explained.
Facebook, of course, is the most notable other example.
"People already were deeply invested in Facebook, though, when it made changes.," noted Golbeck. "They had hundreds of friends there, a whole social communication structure."
Thus, although many users were irritated that they had to recheck their privacy settings to make sure that their information was being distributed only to whom they wanted, they stayed with the service.
Google, however, "hit onto the very thing that people fear in social networks when it comes to their privacy," Golbeck stressed.
In addition, the high-profile, anecdotal stories of doctors who had all of their patients appearing on their Buzz lists and the woman whose ex-husband was able to see her current contacts on her public Google profile went a long way toward warning people off the service, she continued.
For her own personal use, Golbeck still doesn't trust the service.
"I'm an avid social network user," she noted, primarily because social networking is her research focus. "But Google Buzz frightens me."
Why would such an enormous company in the Internet world make such a big misstep and then continue to downplay the problem? There are two possibilities, according to Golbeck. "Either Google didn't think about this -- in which case we can't be sure that they're going to think about any other privacy issues -- or they thought it was worth it competitively or economically."
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