Google Says Sorry for Telling the World Who You E-mail, Agrees to Twenty Years of Privacy Audits

By
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google has agreed to settlement with the FTC over Google Buzz, its ill-fated social network. In order to atone for the FTC charges that Google "used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers," the company has agreed to independent privacy audits every two years for the next two decades. It seems that cutesy lingo wasn't enough to cover the fact that Google Buzz violated Gmail's promise to consumers by exposing users' most frequent contacts on Google Buzz without their permission. In some cases, those contacts were ex-spouses, patients, students, employers, or competitors, who didn't appreciate being outted. According to the FTC's complaint:

On the day Buzz was launched, Gmail users got a message announcing the new service and were given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.” However, the FTC complaint alleged that some Gmail users who clicked on “Nah...” were nonetheless enrolled in certain features of the Google Buzz social network. For those Gmail users who clicked on “Sweet!,” the FTC alleges that they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google also offered a “Turn Off Buzz” option that did not fully remove the user from the social network.

Google already agreed to an $8.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Google Buzz for similar charges. In fact, it was the lawsuit that alerted the FTC to the violations. But today's deal marks the first time the agency has ever required a company to develop a comprehensive privacy program to protect consumers. Senator John Kerry has already taken up the settlement as support for the privacy bill he plans on releasing later this year.

“Baseline privacy protections in law remain common sense and this case proves it,” Kerry said. “Google has admitted error, but Google is far from alone in the collection, use, and distribution of immense amounts of our information.

But Larry Page, who officially takes back his seat as Google's CEO on Friday, probably has another way of looking at this. FTC thinks Google will for sure be around for the next twenty years! No iPhone or Bing users in the building, we guess.

FTC Charges Deceptive Privacy Practices in Google's Rollout of Its Buzz Social Network [FTC]
An update on Buzz [Google Blog]
Kerry: Google Buzz settlement shows need for commercial privacy legislation [Hill via Techmeme]
Related: Congratulations! You Won That Google Lawsuit You Didn’t Know You Filed