Google Agrees to ‘Comprehensive Privacy Program’ in Buzz Settlement

The buzz surrounding Google's Buzz is officially over. The online search giant has reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over claims that it used deceptive tactics and violated privacy policies when it introduced the controversial social networking service last year.

The buzz surrounding Google’s Buzz is officially over. The online search giant has reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over claims that it used deceptive tactics and violated privacy policies when it introduced the controversial social networking service last year.

The proposed settlement would require Google to implement a “comprehensive privacy program,” and hold the company to accountability by enforcing regular reports on its privacy practices prepared by an independent professional every two years for the next 20 years.

“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, the Democratic chairman of the FTC. “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.”

The settlement, approved unanimously by the FTC’s five commissioners, is subject to public comment and final approval

Buzz drew heavy criticism from users and privacy advocates alike as soon as Google integrated it into its popular Gmail email service in February 2010. The service was introduced as a ‘social hub’ to let Gmail users track the status updates and other online information of their most frequently e-mailed contacts.

The problem, and glaring privacy flaw, was that anybody following a user could automatically see all of his or her other Buzz contacts.

The feature also raised red privacy flags because it was automatically added to Gmail accounts without making it clear what information would be shared with whom, and users complained they did not want their email contacts to be part of a wide-open social network.

According to the FTC, “Although Google led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the network, the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective.”

With that in mind, the FTC settlement also demands that Google obtain user consent before sharing consumer information with third parties if it alters a service to use the data in a way that would violate its existing privacy policy.

Google quickly issued its own mea culpa to users following announcement of the settlement on Wednesday.

“We try to be clear about what data we collect and how we use it – and to give people real control over the information they share with us,” Alma Whitten, Google’s privacy director, wrote on the company’s official blog. “That said, we don’t always get everything right. The launch of Google Buzz fell short of our usual standards for transparency and user control – letting our users and Google down.”

Whitten also vowed that once the new privacy features are in place, Google will “ask users to give…affirmative consent” before changing how it shares their personal info.

It was just last November that the company agreed to an $8.5 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by Gmail users over Buzz.

In that case, Google directed the $8.5 million not to individual users but to an independent fund to support “organizations promoting privacy education and policy on the web.” Google also said it would make further, unspecified efforts to educate its users about Buzz privacy issues.

The FTC settlement does not call for a fine, but will cover future situations like Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data and it’s “Street View” mapping feature.

Google’s run in with the FTC began not with users, but with a Washington-based advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The center filed a complaint on Feb. 16, 2010, asking the FTC to investigate whether consumers were harmed when private e-mail contact information was automatically released to other Gmail users through Buzz. Ten lawmakers separately issued a letter to the FTC on March 25, 2010, urging the commission to take on the group’s complaint.

“The FTC action is far-reaching,” the center’s Executive Director Marc Rotenberg told Bloomberg News. “This is the most significant privacy decision by the commission to date. For Internet users, it should lead to higher privacy standards and better protection for personal data.”