Google committed its biggest misstep in recent memory with the launch of its new social media tool, Google Buzz. You would have to intentionally not be paying attention to have missed the furor over the privacy and trust violations alleged by angry users and advocates since its launch on February 9th. But hearing the buzz about Buzz and understanding what Google Buzz actually is, or how it may affect your workplace, are independent realizations. Now a week after its launch, Google has made two major tweaks to the privacy settings in Google Buzz in attempts to quell users’ anger.

What is Google Buzz

Google Buzz is the latest effort at merging existing social media options into a new platform. Google is in an enviable position to be a big, if not the biggest, player in this convergence model because of their existing Gmail service. Google Buzz essentially allows all Gmail users to broadcast and share messages, photos, videos, web links and tweets with friends and colleagues directly within Gmail.

At the heart of Google Buzz’s functionality is the built-in feature that “links” those people that a user emails the most through Gmail. In other words, a user would automatically follow, and be followed by, those people with whom that user exchanges a lot of emails.

The auto-follow feature works for many people and is probably pretty innocuous in a vacuum. However, what if a user emails an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband a lot? That person most likely does not want that person “following” them.  

One of the features of Google Buzz is that it shares what I read in Google Reader with my followers. Google Reader is an RSS reader, a sort of automatic article fetcher that pulls from publications that I choose. Again, most users may not care, or may even want to share, that he or she loves to read TMZ.com or Engadget.com. However, what if a user reads publications with alternative lifestyle subject matters, but does not share his or her sexual orientation with friends or co-workers? What if a user has subscribed to job search services, but does not want it known that he or she is looking for a new job? What if a wife reads spousal abuse publications, and the person she emails the most is her abusive spouse? Someone at Google apparently thought it would be a great feature to have these people automatically know what I read and follow. Ready, fire, aim.

Another feature is a direct connection to Picasa, Google’s online photo sharing service. The issues that could arise with Picasa are similar to those that could arise with Google Reader, only with the likelihood of being more graphic (no pun intended) and personal. Likewise, Twitter posts can be viewed (although not responded to) when following a Google Buzz user.

Google’s Response and Changes to Google Buzz

Google, to its credit, responded quickly to the mass of complaints and made changes to its system, tweaking the system so that users won't be set up to follow anyone until the user has reviewed the suggestions and clicked “Follow selected people and start using Buzz.” In other words, you will choose who you follow and who you allow to follow you, with Google Buzz suggesting people to you. Google installed a link that permits a Gmail user to shut off Google Buzz. Google also changed its broadcast system in Google Buzz so that users can decide how to share particular content, such as private, to a small group of users or publicly. Google Buzz also no longer automatically includes Google Reader and Picasa content. Other changes were made as well.

In the Workplace

With that dense history (and what a short history), what does Google Buzz mean for the workplace? The opportunities for further privacy concerns multiply. Let’s start with a premise that you may not have accepted: employees use Gmail. At work, Gmail is certainly one of the most popular email services for sharing email that employees do not want going through their employer’s email servers. Clients also use Gmail, sometimes because they email you from vacation, sometimes because it is the only thing they can get to work on their mobile device. In any event, Gmail is out there and it affects almost any business.

First, now there is another service where we can learn about a co-workers or client’s personal life. In most cases, these are nuggets of information that we do not want to know, should not know, or both. And when someone learns this information, it is difficult if not impossible to forget. Employment-related actions and reactions based on this personal information can often be in violation of applicable employment and nondiscrimination laws. In other words, there are more opportunities for lawsuits.

Second, online stalking and harassment opportunities are created where they may not have previously existed. Facebook and Twitter may have opened the door to “following” co-workers and clients, but Google Buzz adds to it, and does so in a multiple factor way by consolidating several sources of information. Should employers be concerned about employees becoming more involved with and learning more about the personal lives of other co-workers? Absolutely.

Finally, many employers have banned employee access at work to sites like Facebook and Twitter while at work for productivity reasons. With the launch of Google Buzz, should employers now block access to Gmail? Would such a “block” affect the productivity of employees who (for whatever reason) use Gmail as part of his or her job? And if Google Buzz (like most social networking services) can be accessed by mobile devices, can access while at work effectively be blocked?

These are just a few of the privacy issues that are mounting as new social media services are launched. Those employers that get in front of these issues are going to be able to avoid potentially costly lawsuits and public relations nightmares. Unfortunately, as long as service providers take the “ready, fire, aim” approach, thinking through the impact of, and staying in front of, these issues will be employers responsibilities.