FTC Should Put Up or Shut Up on Google Buzz

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-18

FTC Should Put Up or Shut Up on Google Buzz

What grinds my gears about the current miniwave of backlash over Google Buzz is that it seems like a lot of psychoanalysis after the fact.

Outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour blasted Google Buzz during the agency's privacy workshop March 17. A little St. Patrick's Day send-off before Harbour leaves her post April 6. In that context, it came off like a cheap shot.

Google Buzz is the search engine's stab at a broad, sweeping social service to provide a touch of what users are getting from Facebook and Twitter. 

Launched Feb. 9, the service is opt in via a link in users' Gmail accounts, and leverages users' Gmail and chat contacts to trigger conversations within the Buzz network. This occurs when users post "buzz," including status updates, as well as photos and videos.

Where Google went wrong from the start was crafting the service, which requires a Google profile to access it, in such a way as to make Buzz users' Gmail and chat contacts public on those users' public Google profiles. So if Chris is a Gmail contact of Dan and Dan joined Buzz, Chris' profile would show up under the Buzz section of Dan's Google profile.

Google assumed that anyone using the service would be simpatico with this, which was a mistake. Compounding the problem, privacy controls hovered in the background, which when combined with the public profile rendering made it seem like Google was making it deliberately difficult for users to protect their info on Buzz.

Users rebelled, citing cases of Google trampling on their privacy. Someone filed a class-action lawsuit (because that's what people do to resolve things these days) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the FTC.

What did Google do? Google backtracked and apologized. Within two days, Google added a privacy checkbox and within five days it made the service auto-suggest instead of auto-follow. Changes to better manage Buzz are ongoing.

The first couple weeks of Buzz were a public relations nightmare, balanced somewhat by positive reception to the service. Tens of millions of people happily used the service and still do.

More than a month after the Buzz privacy flap, the FTC leader, who is leaving in three weeks, dumped all over the service. After the fact.

Harbour said the launch of Google Buzz was "irresponsible conduct" by Google. Harbour added: "Google consistently tells the public to 'just trust us,'" she said. "But based on my observations, I do not believe consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz."

FTC Should Act, Not Talk

A Google spokesperson told me:

"User transparency and control are top of mind for us, and we review all products carefully before we roll them out. When we realized that we'd unintentionally made many of our users unhappy, we moved quickly to make significant product improvements to address their concerns. Our door is open to all feedback as we continue to make improvements."

Even Harbour's feedback, so late in the game. Harbour's points have been made ad nauseum and by those with more high-tech know-how. Microsoft Researcher Danah Boyd eloquently dissected the Buzz issue at South-By-Southwest. Read her take on the Buzz imbroglio here.

My advice to the FTC is put up or shut up. Stop imploring and usher more policies and privacy controls into legislation. Require high-tech companies to vet Web services that potentially infringe on users' rights.

Or just sue Google, because that's what government agencies do when they can't figure another way to resolve the problem.

But this high-minded, hyperbolic bluster after the fact is wearing like too little butter on too much bread.

What good does the railing do now that Google has made efforts to redeem itself and its service? Where was the FTC one month ago? Attacking Google would have made better sense then. Now it's just a pile on.  

Still, there is something disturbing about the way large companies with smart people screw up these social services. Facebook's Beacon advertising service, which rendered users' activities visible without their permission, was the first royal snafu of this ilk. That service is now dead.

Buzz is alive, but the Buzz experience revealed serious sociological blind spots, or maybe its just some sort of corporate, hive-minded superego these companies can't check.

Harbour did make the fair point that Google, Facebook and others developing services where user privacy is a factor should stop releasing the features before they are sure they will pass the privacy acid test.  

What Google should do with services such as Buzz to avoid any impropriety or privacy pitfall, is pretest features that may impact privacy with users. Invite select users to test and run the experiment, as Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson alluded to at SXSW.

As much as this goes against Google's grain, it would be the smarter, smoother move. And it would prevent the pronounced barking from federal officials looking for one last hurrah on the political soapbox.


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