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Privacy advocates file FTC complaint on Google Buzz

The fallout from Google’s fast but perhaps clumsy move into social networking continues. An Internet privacy watchdog group complained to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday afternoon that the Google Buzz social networking application attached to the company’s popular e-mail program caused “clear harms to service subscribers.”

In the complaint, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said the launch of Google Buzz last week converted private and personal information of Gmail users into public information.

“This change in business practices and service terms violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google’s own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws,” EPIC wrote. “in some instances, there were clear harms to service subscribers.

Soon after Google Buzz launched one week ago, users of Gmail (which has 37 million users) decried the new application as it automatically drew from contacts in the program into a social network. Users said their e-mail contacts weren’t necessarily people they wanted to follow them in Google’s new social network meant to take on Facebook. Moreoever, those contacts were made public unless explicitly set to remain private. Opting to keep those contacts private along with information shared by users was confusing.

Google responded Thursday by tweaking its privacy settings to make it easier to find the button to make lists of followers private. Still users complained and the company was blasted on Twitter, blogs and popular technology e-mail groups. So the company changed its privacy policy for Google Buzz again Saturday, apologizing for bundling the service with Gmail without users' prior consent. The company said that it wouldn’t automatically set e-mail contacts as followers and that a Gmail user could opt out of the feature entirely.

"We've already made a few changes based on user feedback, and we have more improvements in the works,” a Google representative said in a statement. “We also welcome dialogue with EPIC and appreciate hearing directly from them about their concerns. Our door is always open to organizations with suggestions about our products and services."

EPIC urged the FTC to investigate the Google application for harms and whether the company deserves to be punished. It asked the agency to force the online search giant to provide the service only as a voluntary, or opt-in, service as opposed to an opt-out application. The advocacy group urged that the FTC also require Google to provide notice and request consent from users before making changes to privacy policies.

In March 2009, EPIC filed a complaint with the FTC to investigate the misuse of personal data from Google’s cloud computing programs.

As Google spreads its wings into so many different new business lines – broadband, social networking, cellphones -- in the past two months, analysts have questioned the company’s ability to maintain its strong brand among consumers as debacles like this occur.

By Cecilia Kang  |  February 17, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  FTC , Google , Privacy  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Verizon, Skype partner on smartphones
Next: @AshtonKutcher @Feds @Geeks to Russia with techie love


Ms. Kang writes so many articles about her sponsor, Google, that I would not be surprised if she changed her middle name to "Google" so that she could tout the company in every byline. Washington Post, do you care at all about journalistic ethics?

Posted by: LBrettGlass | February 18, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

Brett, for the thousandth time, Google doesn't sponsor this or any other blog that runs adsense ads... the ad running right now is by the Rain Forest Action Network.

I would not be surprised if you changed your middle name to "obsessedloser" given all the time you keep this focus up.

Folks, Brett's been banned for many blogs and listserves for his homicidal behavior. Watch out, lock your doors and protect your pets and children's private parts if he ever comes to your town.

Posted by: AmyBandini | February 19, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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