Google March 30 said it settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers with its Google Buzz social application.
Under the settlement, Google must get users’ consent before sharing their information with third parties if Google changes privacy promises it made after collecting users’ information.
The FTC is also requiring Google to implement a privacy program and to agree to independent privacy audits every two years for the next 20 years. Google confirmed the FTC did not fine the company for its privacy transgressions.
Google launched Buzz Feb. 9, 2010. The application lets users post status updates and share Picasa photos, YouTube videos, links and other content right in Gmail.
Buzz was the company’s first serious attempt at challenging Facebook or Twitter. However, Buzz engineers failed to properly account for users’ privacy requirements. The application leveraged users’ Gmail contacts to quickly scale large social networks of Buzz contacts.
Users’ Gmail friends were publicly exposed, sparking outrage from thousands of users. Google made Buzz auto-suggest instead of auto-follow. Still, class-action suits claiming Google violated users’ privacy were filed. Google settled one for $8.5 million last November.
The FTC, which has been investigating the issue since the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a formal complaint one week after Buzz launched, said Google was deceptive in leading its Gmail customers to believe that they could opt out of Buzz because those who declined were still included in certain Buzz features.
“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. “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 apologized for the mistakes it made with Buzz, said Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google. Whitten was appointed to her post as part of a way for Google to shore up privacy flaws after its Street View WiFi data-collection incident.
“The launch of Google Buzz fell short of our usual standards for transparency and user control-letting our users and Google down,” Whitten said. “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.”
Far from fading from view, Google said Buzz is still used by millions of users and is considered part of the company’s social-integration strategy. Indeed, Google today launched +1, its answer to Facebook’s Like button and the company’s next leg in its social-search journey.