The Buzz on Buzz – and a Reprimand from the FTC

During our hiatus, Google Buzz, Google’s foray into social media, came and went as hot news.  It got launched, people complained mightily about it, and while it’s still around, the buzz is gone. Google itself admitted that it didn’t test the thing enough, and the BBC reports that in fact the company only tested it internally before foisting it upon the public. The complaints were primarily that Buzz gave its 175 million mail users a ready-made circle of friends based on the people they most frequently e-mailed. Information was taken from their email contact lists without users’ consent or the ability to opt out.
By default, the lists of “followers” could be viewed by anyone who was looking at a user’s profile, which, of course is a privacy issue. Users also complained that the Buzz is “noisy,” with people who frequently post or who get a lot of comments dominating the “discussion.” The thing launched on February 9th, and by February 11th the privacy police were on its tail.  For any social network, the balance between connection and privacy is a precarious one, and Google came out on the wrong side of it.

On the upside, Google responded to these concerns with alacrity. By Tuesday the 16th of February, Google had set up a “War Room” which changed the basis of the network to one that would only suggest people who a user might want to be friends with. And the story continues.  Just this week, outgoing  FTC commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour  said that Google (and other social networks like Facebook as well) need to better protect consumer privacy or “face tougher penalties from the FTC. PCWorld reports that she added,

I realize that companies continue to take a testing-the-water approach to privacy because no regulatory agency has sent a clear message that this behavior is unacceptable. I would like to see the commission take the position of intolerance toward companies that push the privacy envelop, then backtrack and modify their offerings after facing consumer and regulator backlash.

As far as Google specifically is concerned,  Ms. Jones Harbour said,

Google consistently tells the public to ‘just trust us. But based on my observations, I do not believe consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz.

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