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Google backpedals (again) on Buzz privacy

We don't auto-follow. We auto-suggest

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For the second time since the launch of Google Buzz last Tuesday, Mountain View has announced changes to its Tweetbookish Gmail add-on in an effort to answer complaints over user privacy.

"We've heard your feedback loud and clear, and since we launched Google Buzz four days ago, we've been working around the clock to address the concerns you've raised," Gmail product manager Todd Jackson wrote in an official Google blog post published late Saturday afternoon.

Among other things, Jackson said that Buzz will no longer "auto follow" your existing Gmail and Google Chat contacts. Like Facebook or Twitter, Buzz is a means of sharing personal info, web links, and media with others across the web in (near) real-time, and at launch, it automatically identified your most frequent email and chat contacts as individuals you'd like to receive posts from - people to "follow," in Twitter-speak.

By default, Buzz also exposed this list of people to the world at large, and many complained that the checkbox for hiding the list wasn't as visible as it should be.

On Thursday, Jackson and Google announced that they would move the checkbox to a more prominent position, and now, they've said that at set-up time, they'll give users more control over who they follow and who they don't.

"Instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model," Jackson wrote on Saturday. "You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked 'Follow selected people and start using Buzz.'"

Yes, Google still pre-selects people for you to follow. But it shows you who it has selected and asks for your approval.

New users will see the change beginning this week, and over "the next couple weeks," Buzz will automatically offer a similar set-up screen to existing users, giving them the chance to review the list of people they're following and make edits as they see fit. Alternatively, users can edit their list through existing tools built into Gmail's Buzz tab.

Jackson also said that Buzz will no longer automatically connect content you'd previously shared through Google's Picasa and Reader services and that the company would add a "Buzz" tab to Gmail's settings interface. From this tab, you'll be able to disable Buzz entirely, and there will be a link to the tab from the the initial Buzz startup page.

"'We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right," Jackson said. "We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback."

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that 31.2 million Gmail users were automatically opted in to the service, and we know that most Gmail users will approve Google's "auto-suggestions" without even knowing what they're doing. That's just how people are.

Last week, we wondered why Google hadn't tested Buzz with a relatively small group of users in an effort to hone its privacy settings before pushing it out to the world at large. But we also wonder if sidestepping such testing was part of the grand Google plan.

After all, Google's primary aim isn't to protect your privacy. This is a company that says only miscreants care about privacy. Google's primary aim is to expose as much of your data as you'll let it expose. The best way to do that is to push the edge of the envelope - and then, if need be, pull back. ®

Update: This story has been updated to correct the estimated number of Gmail users.

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