Privacy Group Files Complaint with Feds Over Google's Social Network

A digital privacy group filed a complaint with the U.S. government Tuesday over Google's (GOOG) new "Buzz" social networking product, saying the search giant's use of private email contacts to build a public online community violated federal consumer protection laws. The complaint, filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says Google "is engaging in unfair and deceptive acts and practices." In a statement to DailyFinance, a Google spokesperson said the Mountain View, Calif. company has "already made a few changes based on user feedback, and we have more improvements in the works."Google's Buzz roll-out last week prompted howls of protest over privacy concerns and caused Google to apologize and modify the service.

EPIC filed the complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, saying that Buzz "violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's own privacy policy...." among other charges. The group cited "widespread opposition to the service by Google users, news organizations, bloggers, and technology experts." EPIC's complaint comes as Canada's official privacy agency said it is probing the matter.

'Significant Breach Of Consumers' Expectations Of Privacy'

Buzz, which incorporated social networking features into Gmail, was supposed to be Google's most ambitious foray yet into the booming real-time social space led by Facebook and Twitter. Instead, the launch turned into embarrassment for Google after users discovered many of their private contacts were displayed publicly, prompting an unusual public apology from the company.

"This is a significant breach of consumers' expectations of privacy," EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said in a statement. "Google should not be allowed to push users' personal information into a social network they never requested."

The Google spokesperson said the company was open to feedback. "We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user transparency and control top of mind," the spokesperson said. "We also welcome dialogue with EPIC and appreciate hearing directly from them about their concerns."

In an interview with CBS News's Larry Magid, Google Vice President Bradley Horowitz said "disclosures and speed bumps in place were not sufficient" and "some user unhappiness resulted."

On Saturday, as the privacy furor grew, Google apologized and announced that new users would no longer automatically follow and be followed by their most frequent email contacts. The company said that instead of an "auto-follow" model, Buzz would use an "auto-suggest" model. "You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked 'Follow selected people and start using Buzz,'" the company said.

Group Wants Government To Compel Changes

But that didn't satisfy EPIC, which expressed concerns about the very premise of using a private email service as the basis for a public social network. Google's attempt "to convert the personal information of all of its customers into a separate service raises far-reaching concerns for subscribers and implicates both consumer and personal privacy interests," the group said.

Meanwhile, Valerie Lawton, a spokesperson for Canada's Office of the Privacy Commissioner, told CBC Tuesday that her office is investigating Buzz to see if the product violates Canadian privacy laws. "We understand the public concern about privacy issues related to Google Buzz," she said. "Our office is looking at the issue."

Both the EPIC complaint -- which could lead to a federal investigation -- and the Canadian inquiry are unwelcome developments for Google. The company knows it needs to play catch-up in the social space if intends to challenge Facebook and Twitter -- but this wholesale social land-grab was clearly inappropriate. With so many geniuses running around Google's headquarters, one wonders why the company couldn't see that.

From EPIC's complaint:

EPIC requests that the Commission investigate Google, enjoin its unfair and deceptive business practices, and require Google to protect the privacy of Gmail users. Specifically, EPIC requests the Commission to:
Compel Google to make Google Buzz a fully opt-in service for Gmail users;

Compel Google to cease using Gmail users' private address book contacts to compile
social networking lists;

Compel Google to give Google Buzz users more control over their information, by
allowing users to accept or reject followers from the outset; and

Provide such other relief as the Commission finds necessary and appropriate.

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