New from Google: G-mea culpa

You see, it’s not so easy being big. That, at least, is one lesson Google could learn from Microsoft.

After the search giant stormed the web’s news outlets and blogs last week with the launch of its Gmail-based social networking tool Buzz, so this week it is reaping the pain from getting it so badly wrong.

Sometimes even the firm the helped define the phrase “working at internet speed” finds it needs to slow down and think first.

Buzz has been widely attacked for having some of the weakest privacy guards yet created by a major web player. Google assumed that all the people that Gmail users emailed regularly would automatically be considered part of their social network and thus free to publicise.

The negative feedback generated proves that even the most social of us like to keep a lid on some of our socialising. As privacy experts have pointed out, there might be a very good reason why someone is using a private email service to communicate with people they would rather not be seen publicly communicating with. You have to wonder if footballers John Terry and Ashley Cole are users (allegedly).

Google is now frantically back-tracking and apologising, having admitted that it bypassed its usual testing procedures. The fuss goes to prove that even a giant like Google has a lot to learn.

Privacy, as I’ve written before, is one of the defining issues of the internet age – just look at the furore Facebook generated when it tried to change the terms and conditions around its users’ personal information.

Being big and successful does not make you immune from mistakes or from criticism. Microsoft learned that the hard way – in Redmond’s case, through the anti-trust courts. Google needs to be aware that it is fast approaching the size and influence when people – and governments – expect it to be a responsible leader and not perceived as a monopolistic manipulator.

And from an IT perspective, even with the technology world and the web developing and changing so quickly, there is no substitute for testing. There are plenty of software developers who would smile knowingly at the thought.