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Reporters' Roundtable: Buzz vs. privacy (podcast)

When the Google Buzz first launched, it's fair to say it was a little too eager to use and share the details of users' personal networks. What was Google thinking?

Last week, Google launched Buzz, a status update tool that has elements of Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed. Google launched it inside the Gmail app, giving it an instant installed base of millions of people. More importantly, Google gave Buzz access to your Gmail contacts.

When the app first launched, it's fair to say that the Buzz app was a little too eager to use and share the details of users' personal networks. Furthermore, privacy controls for Buzz were spread over multiple configuration screens. Some necessary controls, like the off switch, were just flat-out missing.

To Google's credit, within days, the company corrected the major privacy failings of Buzz. More than once, in fact:
Google tweaks Buzz privacy settings
Google changes Buzz privacy settings--again

But the question remains: what was Google thinking? How did this giant search company, with more lawyers than most Web companies have engineers, get itself into a situation that required it to revise the product almost immediately after it launched? And what does the Buzz experience say about social networks and privacy on the larger scale?

That's what we're going to discuss today, and we have two great guests to do it. First, we have a taped interview with Mike Yang, senior product counsel for Google. I taped this interview earlier. Then I have a discussion with Jared Kaprove, a fellow at EPIC, The Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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Show notes and talking points
1. Mike Yang

Yang is managing product counsel at Google, focusing on global privacy, copyright, and content regulation issues for Google's products. Prior to joining Google, he worked as counsel for the California State Senate Judiciary Committee and as counsel to Congressman Henry Waxman. Questions we ask:

From your perspective at Google, what happened with the Buzz launch?

Was it what you expected?

What has changed with Buzz in reaction to the feedback you've gotten? (Official Google Blog post)

Reports are that Google tested Buzz internally extensively, in a process called "dogfooding." Have you reconsidered the importance of that process for future products?

Google must have studied Facebook, in particular, and Twitter, to some extent, with regard to how to deal with user privacy in social networks. What did you learn from those sites? And what did you learn from Orkut and Wave that influenced Buzz?

The idea of unified messaging is one thing, but do you think that personal-communication information such as e-mail and instant-messaging contact lists should be closely intermingled with broadcast or microblogging tools such as Buzz or Twitter?

There are many different forms of privacy: Privacy of identity, privacy of ideas, privacy of behavior, etc. How does Google deal with these different concepts?

What about location privacy? Google collects location data from Latitude users. You've been e-mailing users warnings about sharing that data. What are the dangers, and what are you doing to protect people?

What has changed at Google since the Buzz launch? Will Google be hiring a chief privacy officer, as Facebook did? What will Google do to avoid this kind of issue for future products?

2. Jared Kaprove
Kaprove is a fellow at EPIC, The Electronic Privacy Information Center. We asked him the following questions:

What is your take, as a privacy watchdog, on Yang's replies to the Buzz questions?

EPIC this week filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission stating, among other things, that Buzz "violated user expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's privacy policy, and may have violated federal wiretap laws." We're going to discuss that complaint (PDF), as well as social-network privacy overall.

Now, about this complaint--do you feel that you may have jumped the gun? Even before you filed it, Google was scrambling to fix the issues.

One complaint made is that Google "violated user expectations"--is that against the law?

Tell us your view of the state of online and social privacy on the Internet right now.

Discuss the changing nature of privacy of association--the list of people with whom we connect. Facebook made that open for a while, as did Google. Why didn't these companies get how important that is, when others do get that privacy of behavior is so important?

Discuss changes in privacy of location--Google Latitude, iPhone, mobile phones in general.

What's a Web user to do? You advise to balance openness and connection with online privacy.

What Google needs to learn
Rafe and Josh argue Buzz
Google boss says 'nobody was harmed' by Buzz debacle

That's it for this week's Roundtable. Thanks for watching or listening. And thanks to my guests Mike Yang of Google and Jared Kaprove of EPIC. Next week, as the run-up to the Academy Awards gets under way, we'll have a discussion about the future of digital effects in movies and TV. Guests will be announced shortly.

For updates, watch my Twitter feed. E-mail comments to, and get all the show notes, as well as replays and downloads of the podcast, on the blog.