FTC Charges Google with “Deceptive Privacy Practices” in Buzz Rollout

Any of the interesting technology that came out of the launch of Google’s real-time conversation tool Buzz last year was overshadowed by privacy concerns about the service. These stemmed from the way in which the product was rolled out, namely that users were not given the option to join, and many found their private information was inadvertently exposed in the process.

This led to a number of lawsuits, as well as a Federal Trade Commission investigation over what were called “deceptive privacy practices” surrounding the way in which Buzz was implemented.

The FTC and Google have finally reached a settlement, both parties have just announced.

The proposed settlement will bar Google from any “future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.” It’s the first time an FTC settlement of this kind have required a program of this sort, but as the federal agency points out, it’s the first time that a company has allegedly violated privacy laws that the U.S. and E.U. established so that personal data can be lawfully transferred from the European Union to the U.S.

Google has faced multiple inquiries in various European nations about its data collection and transfer practices, most notably around Google Street View.

The privacy concerns around Buzz stemmed from the lack of clarity around the service’s launch. When the feature was made available, it wasn’t clear to users that they were going to be enrolled. Users were given the option to skip joining Buzz – or so it seemed since the choices were “Nah, go to my inbox” and “Turn Off Buzz.” But according to the FTC, “Google misrepresentated that consumers who clicked on these options would not be enrolled in Buzz. In fact, they were enrolled in certain features…”

Google now says that users will have to give “affirmative consent” before the company is allowed to change how it shares their personal information. In announcing the settlement this morning, Google apologized and insisted it is “100 percent focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.”

While those policies will involve all Google products and services, the impact on Buzz may be small as, despite great hoopla on that original launch date last February, the tool seems to have been a non-starter.

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