FTC Should Put Up or Shut Up on Google Buzz

Outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour blasted Google Buzz during the agency's privacy workshop March 17. The FTC should stop imploring and start pushing policies and privacy controls into legislation. Require high-tech companies to vet Web services that potentially infringe on user's rights. However, Harbour is correct in arguing 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 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."