FTC Smacks Down Google Over Privacy Issues With Buzz

By  |  Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

Google has settled with the Federal Trade Commission over its Google Buzz social network, an issue that has been haunting the search giant for well over a year. The FTC had accused it of using “deceptive tactics” and violating its own privacy policies when it launched the service, and has required it develop a “comprehensive” privacy plan.

From the start, consumers almost lambasted Buzz for sharing personal information, which quickly made it to the courts. The fault could be laid squarely at the feet of Google: the company failed to explain well how the service worked.

In its initial incarnation, Buzz’s worst feature was probably “autofollow,”which seemed more than a little creepy since it made guesses on who your friends were merely by frequency of e-mail contact through Gmail, and then proceeded to disclose your personal data without asking.

The FTC found the company guilty of violations under the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, a inter-governmental agreement created in 2000 to reconcile the EU’s much more stringent privacy laws with oversight of US companies. It was the first time any company had been found in violation, as well as the first time the FTC would have compelled a company to develop a comprehensive privacy policy.

Under the agreement, Google will now be audited for the next 20 years to ensure compliance with its new privacy program. It seems to signal that the FTC is ready to take a tough stance on the subject.

“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” FTC chair Jon Lebowitz said in a statement. Further specifics on the agency’s action can be found in this press release.

While I’m sure some are going to criticize what seems to be a pretty heavy-handed settlement as “government overreach,” I do believe this was the right move on the FTC’s part.¬†Yes, we should be vigilant in understanding what we’re sharing, but we should not need to worry that we’re still being opted in to something when we’ve explicitly said we want out (Harry kind of said this in a post last year). That’s pretty much how Buzz operated at first.

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