Google is getting plenty of backlash from privacy advocates. Just a week after the search giant launched Google Buzz social features in its Gmail service, the Federal Trade Commission is receiving accusations about violations of federal consumer-protection laws.
On Tuesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint to that effect with the FTC. EPIC wants the commission to require Google to make Google Buzz fully opt-in, stop using Gmail users' private address-book contacts to compile social-networking lists, and give Google users meaningful control over their personal data.
"This is a significant breach of consumers' expectations of privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC executive director. "Google should not be allowed to push users' personal information into a social network they never requested."
Google Welcomes EPIC Dialogue
Google launched Google Buzz on Feb. 9, activating it for all Gmail users. When users began viewing the service, they were automatically listed as following posts from their most common e-mail contacts. Participation in the service also created a public profile that included contacts. Google has changed the service twice since launch, but EPIC said the privacy violations still stand.
"We designed Buzz to make it easy for users to connect with other people and have conversations about the things that interest them. Buzz was launched only a week ago. 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," said a Google spokesperson via e-mail.
With the changes, Buzz will no longer play matchmaker, but instead make connection suggestions. Buzz is also making it easier for users to block the follower Google matched them with, or those who requested a connection. And Google disconnected its Reader and Picasa sites, which share users' favorite web sites and photos, from Buzz, so that even if the settings are public they will not go automatically into the news feed.
"We also welcome dialogue with EPIC and appreciate hearing directly from them about their concerns," the Google spokesperson said. "Our door is always open to organizations with suggestions about our products and services."
A 'Badly Mismanaged' Rollout
Google Buzz launched amid confusion and incomplete communication about privacy and how to control what users saw what content, said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "Google has worked hard to correct and respond to problems," he said, "but they clearly didn't anticipate the confusion and even anger of some users."
As Sterling sees it, considerable ambiguity remains about settings and controls. That said, Sterling noted, the adoption has been impressive, in part because of the automatic opt-in.
"That public outcry over privacy and uncertainty surrounding Buzz has prompted the Canadian and EPIC complaints," Sterling said. "Google will ultimately address all the issues. However, it badly mismanaged the rollout in its excitement over the product and desire to transform Gmail into a social-media platform."