Last updated: February 15, 2010 3:29 pm

Google seeks to quell Buzz privacy outcry

Google sought on Thursday night to quell an outcry over the privacy settings in its new Buzz social networking service, which critics have claimed exposes personal information about users without their approval.

The internet company acknowledged the concerns raised by the service, launched just two days before, and announced changes designed to stem the fears, though these did not directly address all the complaints from some critics.

Its change of heart follows a growing chorus of complaints on the web. One privacy advocacy group told the Financial Times that it planned to file an official complaint with US regulators over the affair.

The outcry has centred on the way Buzz automatically creates a social network for new users by drawing on the people they communicate with most frequently over Gmail, Google’s e-mail system. This list of personal e-mail contacts is then made public over Buzz by default, although users can choose to override the system to hide it.

“People are surprised that Google treated a private [e-mail] contact list as a public ‘friends’ list,” said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He said that the list should not automatically be made public, and that he would lodge a Federal Trade Commission complaint next week.

In a blog post on Thursday evening, Google said it was making changes to Buzz deal with this issue. These included making it easier for users to change their privacy settings to limit who can see their personal lists of contacts. However, the contact lists will still be public by default until changes are made, and it was unclear whether the concessions would do enough to quiet the critics.

The row over privacy on Buss echoes the reaction two months ago to a decision by Facebook to make more of the personal data about its own users public by default. Under the guise of giving them greater controls over their privacy, Facebook also changed its settings in a way that made personal contact lists more public, though it later partially reversed that.

The moves by Google and Facebook to push more of their users’ personal information into the public domain comes as they are trying to match the popularity of Twitter – a service that most users expect to be public from the outset.

Unlike Twitter, Google and Facebook face the challenge of encouraging users to think of their personal social networks and private e-mail contact lists as the foundation for more public behaviour.

The similar approaches taken by Facebook and Google suggest that big internet companies are trying to stretch the limits of current privacy expectations, said Mr Rotenberg. “Companies may become more aggressive if they think they can get away with this.”

Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, added that Google’s Buzz service represented a worrying new trend in marketing, given the extent of the information it already holds about its users. “Buzz is the latest example of a global digital data collection ‘arms race’ – where the latest trend is for marketers to grab hold and monetise a user’s social graph,” he said.

The FTC refused to comment on Thursday.

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