FTC puts Google on 20 years of 'privacy probation'

Regulators slam Google for privacy violations involving Google Buzz

Google Buzz

The Federal Trade Commission has come down like a ton of government regulators on Google and its Google Buzz social networking service for stomping all over their own privacy policies when it launched back in February of 2010.

The agreement announced today addresses an FTC charge that Google "used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers." It makes future demands on Google that the regulators contend are unprecedented in scope.

From an FTC press release:

The proposed settlement bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.  This is the first time an FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers' information.  In addition, this is the first time the FTC has alleged violations of the substantive privacy requirements of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which provides a method for U.S. companies to transfer personal data lawfully from the European Union to the United States.

"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."

Google has no quarrel with the FTC decree, at least not publicly. From a Google blog post written by Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product & engineering:

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.

We'd like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz. While today's announcement thankfully put this incident behind us, we are 100 percent focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.

The FTC action backs thousands of Google Gmail users who complained following the launch of Google Buzz that the options and instructions provided to decline, control or leave the service were ineffective and confusing.

Google conceded as much within days of the launch by making changes to the product, but that effort was not enough for prevent the FTC from acting.

Meanwhile, Google Buzz continues to be a box-office flop. According to statistics assembled by the multi-network sharing service AddThis, Google Buzz is ranked No. 23 among social networking sites in terms of the amount of content shared using it. Buzz has seen a 9 percent growth rate over the past 90 days, but that pales in comparison to increases measured last fall.

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