FTC Settlement Over Google Buzz’s Privacy Violations Gets Stamp of Approval

Staff Writer

Following a six-month public comment period, Google’s settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over Google Buzz was approved in late October.  In the settlement order, the FTC agreed with complainant, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers through their recently launched social network, Google Buzz.  The terms of the settlement require Google to implement a more comprehensive and transparent privacy program, bars Google from any future privacy misrepresentations, and requires the company to submit to regular privacy audits for the next twenty years.

Google Buzz had a short-lived but tumultuous existence.  Launched in early 2010 as a social networking tool to be utilized through Google’s Gmail web-based email, Google Buzz was quickly criticized for its lack of privacy protections. In the same month as Google Buzz’s launch, Google faced two legal complaints; one from the EPIC to the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Google Buzz “violated user expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google’s privacy policy, and may have violated federal wiretap laws,” and a second class action suit from a Harvard student alleging that Buzz violated several federal privacy laws.

The basis of the allegations in the FTC complaint were that while Google led Gmail users to believe that joining the network was optional, the preferences for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective. Furthermore, for those users who joined the network, their ability to limit the sharing of personal information was confusing and difficult to navigate.  For example, on the day of Buzz’s launch, Gmail users could click to “check out Buzz,” and those who did were not warned that upon clicking “check out Buzz” the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would automatically be made public.

Based on these, and other privacy violations, Google settled with the FTC.  The settlement was announced on March 30, 2011, with a public comment period to follow.  On October 14, 2011, Google announced that Google Buzz would be shut down together with the Buzz API in order to focus on Google+ instead.  The final settlement agreement was approved unanimously by the FTC and released to the general public on October 24, 2011. (But, read the Concurring Statement of Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch in the original vote for settlement pending public comment and final approval, where Commissioner Rosch voices hesitation as to whether this settlement is in the public interest, here.)

Google’s FTC settlement is unique in two respects.  First, no other FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a “comprehensive privacy program” in order to protect consumers.  It is yet to be determined exactly what this program will look like.  Second, this is the first time the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework (a method for U.S. companies to transport data privately and lawfully between the EU and the United States) has been invoked to allege violations of substantive privacy requirements.  The FTC claimed that Google failed to adhere to the Safe Harbor principles when it failed to give consumers notice and choice before using their information for a purpose other than the one for which it was actually collected.  These aspects of the settlement order may well be consequential for other similarly-situated companies who violate federal consumer privacy protections.

For more information: In the Matter of Google Inc., a corporation, FTC File No. 102-3136.

2 thoughts on “FTC Settlement Over Google Buzz’s Privacy Violations Gets Stamp of Approval

  1. I am a big fan of Google and I hope they’ve learned their lesson on this. You don’t have to trick people just provide a great product like G+, listen to feedback from users and then act on them to improve the product. Do this and the customers will come and stay.

  2. Pingback: Google’s Safari Tracking — The Online Privacy Issue « HKU Company Law

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