The FTC’s settlement with Google: Part 2

According to the FTC’s recent settlement with Google, when people declined to sign up for Google Buzz, the company’s new social network, Google nonetheless enrolled them in certain features without their consent.

But what about people who clicked the link that said “Sweet! Check out Buzz”?  The FTC’s complaint alleged that they, too, weren’t adequately informed that certain information that had been private — including the people they chatted with or emailed most often — would be shared publicly by default.

The setup process for Gmail users — and the tough-to-navigate controls for changing the default settings — raised concerns with the FTC.  When users clicked to sign up, Google took them to a welcome screen that said “You’re set up to follow the people you email and chat with the most,” and listed the users’ followers and the people the user was set up to follow.  However, there was no disclosure on that page that, by default, those names might later be posted on the user’s public profile.

Although it was technically possible for users to change the default settings, the complaint outlines why the FTC alleged the process was inadequate.  For example, users had to click on a link with the not-very-attention-grabbing label of “Edit” even to find the controls. Furthermore, the default setting for items posted in Buzz was public — shared with all of a user’s followers.  Users had to take the extra step of going to a drop-down menu and selecting “private” to post to a more limited group.  In addition, Buzz automatically connected to other information users had made public through Google products like Picasa and Reader.  So in many instances, the info was automatically broadcast in public buzzes that showed up on the user’s public Google profile.

What practical effect did Google’s default choices have on users?  In some cases, people had previously blocked certain email contacts from viewing other information about them, but those preferences weren’t carried over to Buzz.  For example, even if a Gmail user blocked someone in Google Chat or Google Reader, that person wasn’t blocked in Buzz and could show up as a follower.

But the problems didn’t stop there.  If users wanted to reply or direct a comment to an individual, Google suggested names from a user’s contact list.  If the user selected a name or account from the “suggest” list that wasn’t associated with a Google profile, Buzz filled in the field with that person’s private email address — thereby revealing the address to all the user’s followers and allowing that email address to be accessed by search engines.

Just consider the practical implications.  In response to the Google Buzz launch, users expressed anger at the possibility of having information shared with their email contacts — including, in some cases, abusive ex-spouses, people against whom the user had a protective order, clients of mental health professionals, and recruiters they had emailed about job leads — in a social networking context.  They also complained about confusion over the Buzz privacy controls and what personal information would become public.

Next:  More on the Google settlemement
 

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