Google beat two hasty retreats, regrouped and apologized to Gmail users in the wake of massive criticism over its privacy rules or lack thereof when it introduced its Buzz social media network service last week.
Google's Buzz, as the New York Times noted last week, "comes with a built-in circle of friends, a group that is automatically selected by Google based on the people that a user communicates with most frequently in Gmail and on Google’s chat service."
That feature infuriated many Gmail users who pointed out that they often used Gmail to communicate with their bosses and others who they didn't really want (and who they didn't believe wanted to be either) included as a Buzz "friend." Other Gmail users complained that they didn't want to have a Buzz account at all, and were not happy to hear that they were being included by default. Still other Gmail users worried that who they were corresponding with might be inadvertently disclosed.
So Google made some changes to Buzz last Thursday and again over the weekend after Thursday's changes didn't quell the uproar.
What apparently has calmed things down is Google's decision over the weekend to only "suggest" a circle of friends, rather than automatically setting one up, says a New York Times story yesterday. Google is also saying that it will be setting up a tab in the Gmail page to hide Buzz from Gmail users completely if they want.
The Times says, "The page gives users the option to disable Buzz, deleting their posts and removing their Google profile, which in many cases listed publicly their circle of contacts in Buzz. The new feature could address concerns that disabling Buzz and removing a public profile was a multistep process that confused many users and that some described as a game of whack-a-mole."
Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, was quoted in the Times as apologizing for the problems:"We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback... We'll continue to do so."
The Times story notes also that Google claims that tens of millions of its 176 million Gmail users have tried out Buzz, so Google's expectation is that this contretemps will blow over.
I do hope that in the meantime Google will remember that just because software allows you to do something clever doesn't automatically mean you should.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.