Google Buzz spurs privacy complaint to FTC

A privacy group has filed a complaint with the US regulator, saying Google Buzz may have broken US interception laws
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

A US-based privacy group is calling on the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google Buzz, claiming the messaging and social-networking service may have broken laws governing electronic eavesdropping.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) filed a complaint with the FTC on Tuesday, saying that Google Buzz, which is location-based and integrated with Gmail, had been launched without taking user privacy properly into account.

"This complaint concerns an attempt by Google, Inc, the provider of a widely used email service to convert the private, personal information of Gmail subscribers into public information for the company's social-network service Google Buzz," said the Epic FTC filing.

"This change in business practices and service terms violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws."

Google Buzz, launched on 9 February, taps into a Gmail account to set up a group of people with whom the account holder can chat and network. When it was introduced, users signing into Gmail were automatically set up with Google Buzz.

The service also automatically populated the users' networks with the people they emailed and talked to the most. If the user then set up a public profile in Buzz, the service automatically made their list of contacts public.

Google Buzz has come under attack from parties other than Epic. On Wednesday, a class-action privacy lawsuit related to the service was filed in San Jose, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is also investigating the social-networking tool.

In the US complaint, Epic quoted a number of journalists and bloggers who said the service, which can reveal a user's location, could be used for nefarious purposes. Blogger Harriet Jacobs, for example, pointed out that Google Buzz could enable undesirable people to locate her, potentially endangering her physical safety.

Epic asked the FTC to compel Google to make Google Buzz fully opt-in for Gmail users. In addition, it said that Google should not be allowed to use private address books to compile social-networking lists, and that users should be given more control over their information.

Google rejected the privacy group's claims in a statement on Thursday.

"The suggestion that Google Buzz may violate federal wiretapping laws is not correct, and so far Epic has not elaborated on the claim," said the statement. "Google Buzz follows the law, as do all of our services."

However, the search and advertising giant said that it was in the process of improving Buzz, especially in the area of user control of data.

"Buzz was launched only a week ago," said the Google statement. "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."

Google added that it welcomed a dialogue with Epic and would talk to the group directly about their concerns. "Our door is always open to organisations with suggestions about our products and services," Google added.

Following user concerns about Google Buzz, on 11 February Google tweaked the privacy settings of the messaging application.

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