Google walks into privacy Buzz-saw

February 12, 2010

Google touted its 176 million Gmail users as a key advantage in its latest attempt to break into the red-hot social networking market, dominated by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. But email may turn out to be Google’s Achilles heel.

Less than four days after introducing Google Buzz, a social networking service that is built-in to Gmail, the company is already moving to address a growing privacy backlash.

GoogBuzzAt issue is the network of contacts that Buzz automatically creates for new users based on their existing email contacts, saving people the laborious chore of manually building a social graph from scratch.

The problem is that Google’s ready-made social network is composed of people’s frequent email contacts – which are not necessarily the folks you want to receive regular status updates and random musings from (e.g. your landlord).

But the bigger problem – as many blogs and online publications have pointed out in recent days – is that people’s email contacts are in inherently private and the mere fact of making them publicly accessible can be dangerous.

Journalists with deep-throat sources, doctors who email patients, and dissidents living under repressive regimes who have potentially incriminating email contacts in other countries are among the most obvious examples being bandied about.

On Thursday evening, Google showed it was attuned to the issue and announced some changes to Buzz. The company made it easier for Buzz users to make their lists of followers private with a check box that appears front-and-center during the Buzz set-up process. And Google also made it easier to block an individual from following a Buzz user.

Google won kudos among some online commentators for its alacrity in addressing the issue. But some bloggers say the move is still not sufficient, and argue that the lists of Buzz followers should be private by default.

Google is intent on becoming a player in the fast-growing social networking market. Now it’s getting a first-hand lesson on the thorniest contradiction inherent in the social networking market: the balance between people’s desire to broadcast details about their personal lives and the fierce expectations of privacy that go along with it.

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