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Google makes more changes to Buzz to address privacy concerns

The Internet giant also apologizes to users for features in its new social networking service that some people found objectionable.

February 16, 2010|By Jessica Guynn

Reporting from San Francisco — This was not the kind of buzz Google Inc. wanted to generate.

The Internet giant took the unusual step of apologizing to users over the weekend for features in its new social networking service, Google Buzz, that some people said violated their privacy. It also tweaked the product for the second time in less than a week.

Now Google is planning further updates. It's also going to change how it tests new features, Google product manager Todd Jackson said in an interview Monday.

"We didn't get things right in the beginning. We are working extremely hard to fix that," Jackson said. "We are going to continue working and making the product better as fast as we possibly can."

The mea culpa did not pacify privacy watchdogs who contended that this was yet another example of online companies playing fast and loose with consumers' private information. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said it would still file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday. Executive Director Marc Rotenberg is calling on the FTC to take more aggressive action to protect consumer privacy.

"The bottom line is that self-regulation is not working," Rotenberg said. "Google pushes the envelope, people scream and they dial back the service until the screaming subsides."

Google launched the social networking service inside millions of Gmail accounts last week in its latest bid to break into social networking and counter the growing popularity of Facebook and Twitter. The launch caused an uproar as people got nervous that their private contacts or e-mail address would be exposed.

In a blog post Saturday, Jackson announced several changes. Instead of having people automatically follow their frequent e-mail and chat contacts in Gmail, Buzz will suggest people to follow.

Google also said it would create a tab to allow users to hide or turn off Buzz and would no longer automatically connect Picasa photo albums and Google Reader items to Buzz.

The Google Buzz team also decided that it would reach beyond the company's 20,000 employees to test future features after a weekend spent in a "war room" weighing user feedback.

Technology blogger Louis Gray said Google's latest changes addressed the privacy concerns. He predicted that the hubbub would die down. Facebook, which has raised the hackles of users and privacy watchdogs, has more than 400 million users.

Google said tens of millions of Gmail users tried Buzz in the first 48 hours. Whether Google Buzz will catch on remains to be seen.

"Those people who aren't early adopters are not engaging right now," Gray said. "And they might not ever unless there is a unique reason to go to Google Buzz."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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