Privacy officials criticize launch of Google Buzz

Letter from 10 privacy commissioners, including Germany, Canada, and the U.K., asks for reassurance that future product launches will have "adequate" privacy protections.

Ten privacy commissioners from countries including Germany, Canada, and the U.K. have sent a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt saying the company "failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations" when launching Google Buzz.

Monday's letter doesn't threaten the Mountain View, Calif.-based company with any formal or informal legal action. Instead, it asks for a response outlining how Google "will ensure that privacy and data protection requirements" are met in the future.

Also signing the letter were privacy commissioners from France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, which serves a similar role in the United States, did not sign.

Google sent CNET a statement saying: "We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect, and how we use it, as well as to build meaningful controls into our products. Google Dashboard, the Ads Preferences Manager and our data liberation initiative are all good examples of such initiatives. Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right--that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received. We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter--instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about."

A press conference organized by the privacy commissioners is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. PDT in Washington, D.C.

"While your company addressed the most privacy-intrusive aspects of Google Buzz in the wake of this public protest and most recently you asked all users to reconfirm their privacy settings, we remain extremely concerned about how a product with such significant privacy issues was launched in the first place," the letter says. "We would have expected a company of your stature to set a better example."

The letter also takes aim at Google Street View, complaining it "was launched in some countries without due consideration of privacy and data protection laws and cultural norms." Google has been under pressure from the European Union to reduce the time it stores Street View images.

Google Buzz disclosed your "followers" and who you were "following" only if you had elected to publish that information publicly on your Google profile in the first place. But critics have charged that the choices were not as obvious as they could have been, and a lawsuit seeking class action status has been filed.

Updated 9:45 a.m. PT: Added response from Google.

Update 3 p.m. PT: During the press conference earlier today, the privacy commissioners also singled out Facebook for criticism in what was apparently a reference to a privacy dispute a few months ago . Canada is "in discussions with Facebook about how it has unrolled its changes," Jennifer Stoddart said. "It, too, does not seem to be in conformity with our privacy legislation." Other commissioners talked about the need to protect the "legitimate right to anonymity" while requiring identification from users to detect the "presence of minors below a legally permitted age," but didn't say how they would reconcile the two opposing goals.

Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee who is not involved with Google Buzz or Google Street View.

 

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