Google has settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated its own privacy practices when it launched Google Buzz. Google agreed to implement a “comprehensive privacy program” that will be regularly audited for 20 years.
The FTC alleged that Google misrepresented its privacy claims because it led Gmail users to believe they could choose to join Buzz. Instead, Google integrated Buzz and Gmail.
The settlement is the first time the FTC has alleged privacy violations under an U.S.-EU framework. In a blog post, Google apologized and said “user trust really matters.”
Google launched its Buzz social network through its Gmail web-based email product. Although Google led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the network, the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective. For users who joined the Buzz network, the controls for limiting the sharing of their personal information were confusing and difficult to find, the agency alleged.
On the day Buzz was launched, Gmail users got a message announcing the new service and were given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.” However, the FTC complaint alleged that some Gmail users who clicked on “Nah…” were nonetheless enrolled in certain features of the Google Buzz social network. For those Gmail users who clicked on “Sweet!,” the FTC alleges that they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google also offered a “Turn Off Buzz” option that did not fully remove the user from the social network.
Needless to say, the Google Buzz implementation led to a bevy of complaints. Under the settlement with the FTC, Google agreed to the following:
  • No more misrepresenting privacy or confidentiality of user data;
  • Google must get consent before sharing information with third parties;
  • Google has to establish a privacy program;
  • That privacy program will be audited by third parties every two years for the next two decades.
Overall, the FTC is making a statement with this Google settlement. Regular audits are designed to keep Google in check going forward and are going to be an extra cost to doing business.