Privacy watchdogs from 10 countries wrote a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt complaining about Google’s approach to releasing Web applications such as Google Buzz, which touched off a privacy furor when the company launched it in February.
Data protection leaders in Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom said in the April 19 letter that Google Buzz “betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws.”
They allege Google launched Buzz in beta form, which they said is no way to ensure that new services comply with privacy principles.
Yet Buzz was not introduced as a beta project. Google Feb. 9 launched Google Buzz, taking users’ Gmail and chat contacts and using them as the social graph for the service, which lets users post comments, links, photos and videos to ignite conversations.
But in launching the service, Google made the contacts people followed public on Buzz users’ profile pages, which are public on Google. Users were outraged by how easily Google let everyone see who Buzz users were connected to. Google initially provided too little information about this and did not make information it did provide readily visible in Buzz.
Google backtracked, said it was trying to make the services as unobtrusive as possible, and instituted several privacy controls, including making followers auto-suggest instead of auto-follow. Yet the damage had been done.
The Electronic Information Privacy Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Congress representatives wrote to the FTC, and Google is facing two class-action lawsuits over Buzz.
Now the privacy heads of state are piling on:
“It is unacceptable to roll out a product that unilaterally renders personal information public, with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise,” the parties wrote in the letter. “Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world.”
The letter was sent before Google is expected to launch a new privacy initiative later today. A Google spokesperson alluded to this measure in an e-mail to eWEEK asking for a response the letter.
“We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect, and how we use it, as well as to build meaningful controls into our products. Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right–that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received. We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today’s letter — instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about.”
The privacy heads note that Google Buzz was not the first time Google trampled on user privacy. They allege Google Street View was launched in some countries without proper consideration of privacy and data protection laws.
The countries ask that Google “incorporate fundamental privacy principles directly into the design of new online services” going forward.