Google Moves to Further Tighten Buzz Privacy

The search leader's social networking service is again taking steps to lock down its activity.

Seeking to quell an ongoing controversy over the privacy implications of its new social networking service, Google is urging Buzz users to review and update their lists of contacts.

The next time users sign into Buzz, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) will display a prompt asking them to confirm the people they are following and who is following them, seeking to eliminate the unhappy scenario of publishing to the Web all the contacts with whom a person wrote or chatted most frequently.

While social networking has emerged as one of the dominant trends online today -- enabling companies and consumers to stay in contact and forge new relationships -- it's also become a source of widespread worry for IT administrators and consumer advocates, who have grown concerned about all the information that can leak out without a user or organization's knowledge.

When Google launched Buzz in February, the initial hype about the search engine's foray into social networking quickly gave way to widespread privacy concerns over the default settings. Two days after the debut, the company added a checkbox allowing users to opt out of the feature that automatically populated the social network with a person's Gmail contacts, and then, five days later, dropped the auto-population tool altogether.

"Shortly after launching Google Buzz, we quickly realized we didn't get everything right and moved as fast as possible to improve the Buzz experience," Todd Jackson, a product manager at Google, wrote in a blog post.

With the new confirmation prompt, Google is seeking to ensure that early adopters of the service who signed up before the privacy changes were implemented have a clear picture of who, exactly, is in their social network.

The move comes amid ongoing criticism of the service from privacy advocates and some government officials, who have blasted Google for setting up a social network that seemed designed to coax more information out or people than they are comfortable sharing.

Last month, officials at the Federal Trade Commission had harsh words for companies operating in social media. Outgoing Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour called Google's handling of the Buzz rollout "irresponsible," and appealed to the industry to get serious about online privacy concerns.

One prominent advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has filed a complaint with the FTC, asking it to open a formal investigation into Google Buzz. The same group has asked the commission to investigation a recent set of policy changes at Facebook, another firm frequently targeted by groups who warn about the erosion of privacy on the Internet.

A group of lawmakers has also asked the FTC to investigate Google Buzz.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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