Google Buzz Hit with FTC Complaint by Privacy Group

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging Google with failing to protect the personal data of Google Buzz users. The group filed a similar complaint last year against Facebook.

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The Electronic Privacy Information Center Feb. 16 filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that Google Buzz violates federal consumer protection law.

According to EPIC, the complaint urges the FTC to require Google to stop using Gmail users' private address book contacts to establish lists of "followers" for Buzz and to "give Google users meaningful control over their personal data."

"This is a significant breach of consumers' expectations of privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, in a statement. "Google should not be allowed to push users' personal information into a social network they never requested."

Google launched Buzz Feb. 9 as a challenge to social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. However, concerns about privacy prompted the search engine giant to make changes to its service just two days later. On Feb. 11, Google announced it added a checkbox in the profile setup to ensure users acknowledged Buzz will show the names of the contacts they are following-as well as who is following them-on their Google profile.

In addition, Google added "Block" links to the list of people following users that work whether or not the people following them have created profiles for themselves and added clarity on which followers will appear on a user's Google profile.

In response to EPIC's complaint, a Google spokesperson said the company is open to user feedback and is working to address any concerns.

"We designed Buzz to make it easy for users to connect with other people and have conversations about the things that interest them," the spokesperson said. "We've already made a few changes based on user feedback, and we have more improvements in the works. We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user transparency and control top of mind."

EPIC' s decision to file a FTC complaint mirrors the move it made against Facebook in December in the wake of controversy about changes to Facebook privacy settings. Beyond the privacy issues, Google's approach to the prospect of spam on Buzz is also coming under the microscope. Researchers at Websense reported Feb. 11 finding a spam account that at the time it was detected was "following" 237 people.

"The spam we've seen so far is around people following other users," said Patrik Runald, senior manager of security research at Websense. "When you get a new follower, you get alerted to the fact and a prompt whether or not you want to follow them back. It's here that we've seen a lot of spam accounts being used to follow users."

The particular account Websense detected has not been active since Feb. 11, and the spam volumes observed on Buzz thus far have been low, Runald said.

According to Google, there are protections in place to help users deal with spam.

"E-mail messages and buzz posts are inherently different in that anyone with your e-mail address can spam you, but you choose who to follow in Buzz," a separate Google spokesperson said. "If someone is following you whom you consider spammy, you can always block them. We think the bigger potential for spam is in comments, and we have spam and abuse detection in place to combat this."