Google entered into the social network field in February last year with Buzz, which was designed to stream external feeds very much like Twitter and their own Google Reader. It also allowed users to create public or private posts that the Buzz network users could comment upon. Gmail users were lead to believe that they could choose whether to participate in Buzz, but very soon discovered they were unable to opt out. Users also filed complaints regarding the difficulty in controlling what information was shared on Buzz. In other words, Google had created a user privacy nightmare.
The Federal Trade Commission claimed that Google violated its own privacy assurances to its users and worse yet, it violated the FTC Privacy Act. Google responded by modifying its privacy settings and making the contacts private by default, but it was too late. Complaints had piled up and the Federal Government stepped in again, this time using harsh words like “Deceptive Privacy Practices” in the official settlement press release title when it was over. This isn’t the first time Google have been involved in a privacy issue around Buzz. In November of last year, Google settled a preliminary monetary agreement in a lawsuit related to Buzz.
Google apologized to its users March 30, 2011, not a common practice these days, and published an apology on its blog that included this statement: “The launch of Google Buzz fell short of our usual standards for transparency and user control letting our users and Google down. While we worked quickly to make improvements, regulators including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission unsurprisingly wanted more detail about what went wrong and how we could prevent it from happening again. Today, we’ve reached an agreement with
the FTC to address their concerns. We’ll receive an independent review of our
privacy procedures once every two years, and we’ll ask users to give us affirmative consent before we change how we share their personal information.”
The FTC, in the consent agreement press release included this statement; “Google Inc. has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz, in 2010. The agency alleges the practices violate the FTC Act.” “When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations.”
The Federal Trade Commission deserves praise for its follow through as there was an extended period of time since the first user complaint was received and in addition to all the legal achievements, to come out with such strong language in the settlement. Google deserves praise for apologizing in such a straight forward and candid language, not passing the buck and acknowledging wrong doing. Now we can say, after all, Google is Google, and the winner is the user’s privacy.