Google updates Buzz social-networking service amid privacy concerns

Actress Felicia Day is an avid user of Google Inc.'s Gmail. But definitely not a Google Buzz user.

After the new service popped into her in box, she wrote: “Disabling now. Heart attack.”

Day, who created a popular Web show called “The Guild,” was not alone in her privacy concerns. Google support forums have been filled with questions and complaints. Commented one: “Don’t set up a new application and have me ‘following’ a bunch of randoms from my address book. That’s not a ‘feature,’ that’s a ‘mistake.’ ”

The Internet giant this week added a service to Gmail that allows millions of its users to share updates, photos, videos and more with people they e-mail and chat with the most. But users soon discovered that unless they changed their privacy settings, Buzz publicly shares their contacts.

Google has since taken steps to assuage its Gmail users, but privacy watchdogs have continued to say the company has not gone far enough.

“This is one of Google’s biggest blunders,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Rotenberg said his group planned to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging an unfair and deceptive trade practice.

One blogger used this example to express her outrage: “I use my private Gmail account to e-mail my boyfriend and my mother. There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other ‘most frequent’ contacts. You know who my third most frequent contact is? My abusive ex-husband.”

Google on Thursday tweaked the Buzz sign-up process to make the opt-out option clearer and made it easier to block people from following users. It encouraged users to provide more feedback.

Google also said it was considering setting up a stand-alone Buzz.

“We are open to improving Buzz more and to making other changes,” Google spokeswoman Victoria Katsarou said.

Critics say Google, stung by the privacy backlash, is taking steps in the right direction, but they contend that Google should ask for permission before automatically including contacts in Buzz.

“Google shows continued tone deafness to the very important privacy rights of consumers,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said.

The backlash is unusual for Google, which has substantial brand loyalty that it says comes from acting in the best interests of its users. The company relies on that loyalty. It runs the world’s most popular search engine and is expanding into a broad array of services and devices.

Rotenberg said Google might have overreached as it attempted to break into the competitive social networking space, in which it has been outpaced and outmaneuvered by Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

“When you sign up for Facebook, you expect certain things. When you sign up for Twitter, you expect certain things. When you sign up for Gmail, you expect e-mail. So when Google turned people’s e-mail contact list into their social network friends list, they got understandably upset,” he said.