Back in February, users of Google’s web-based email solution, Gmail,  signed into their email accounts to find a new feature: Google Buzz.  Buzz was aimed at creating a micro-blogging service (much like the service provided by Twitter) where users could post status update, pictures, etc, all from within the Gmail interface.

However, Buzz was quickly seen as a privacy concern because of the fact that it implemented the pre-existing Gmail service to base its “friend” system off of.  For this reason, many Gmail users felt that Google was shoving Buzz down everyone’s throats, and more importantly that Google did not respect their privacy when rolling out Buzz.

Today, just as abruptly as the introduction of Google Buzz, users of the Gmail service (including Google Apps users; I got the same email 5 times) received an email from Google stating that a settlement had been made in regards to a class-action lawsuit that was brought upon Google for violations of privacy.  The following is the content of the message:

Google rarely contacts Gmail users via email, but we are making an exception to let you know that we’ve reached a settlement in a lawsuit regarding Google Buzz (http://buzz.google.com), a service we launched within Gmail in February of this year.

Shortly after its launch, we heard from a number of people who were concerned about privacy. In addition, we were sued by a group of Buzz users and recently reached a settlement in this case.

The settlement acknowledges that we quickly changed the service to address users’ concerns. In addition, Google has committed $8.5 million to an independent fund, most of which will support organizations promoting privacy education and policy on the web. We will also do more to educate people about privacy controls specific to Buzz. The more people know about privacy online, the better their online experience will be.

Just to be clear, this is not a settlement in which people who use Gmail can file to receive compensation. Everyone in the U.S. who uses Gmail is included in the settlement, unless you personally decide to opt out before December 6, 2010. The Court will consider final approval of the agreement on January 31, 2011. This email is a summary of the settlement, and more detailed information and instructions approved by the court, including instructions about how to opt out, object, or comment, are available at http://www.BuzzClassAction.com.

While I think many people would have preferred to see claims go directly to the end-users affected by Buzz, I  am more than satisfied with Google’s decision to set aside funds to further the general public’s understanding on online privacy.  Why is this?  I think that Google Buzz is only a single instance of where people did not understand the social tools that they used and the privacy features that went along with them.  In setting aside this money, I feel that privacy advocates will be able to reach out to more people than ever before, and ultimately help them to understand how online privacy works on other social networks as well.  This could help to alleviate concerns over privacy on networks such as Facebook as well, and will give people the understanding necessary to make more rational decisions about their privacy.  Indirectly, by education the public, Google will indeed do a lot of good for the public.

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Google is definitely demonstrating good business practices by admitting and fixing their wrong doings.  However, I also feel that by settling this agreement, Google is working to put the problems with Buzz behind them.  This, combined with the termination of Google Wave, shows that Google has had tremendous failures in the social networking field; a field that I think they are trying to focus on succeeding in.  What does this mean for Google’s presence in the social networking phenomenon?  Will they cut their losses and stay out of the social field?  Or will they try again in a last-ditch effort to succeed?  Only time will tell.  But the fact still remains, that by making this settlement, Google is bettering their name and giving users of their potential social network more and more reason to trust the Internet giant.


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