The FTC's Google settlement: What's the buzz?

“Sweet!  Check out Buzz.”

“Nah, go to my inbox.”

That was the intriguing choice facing Gmail users last year when Google launched Google Buzz, its social network. But according to a settlement announced this week by the FTC, the company violated the privacy promises it made to Gmail users and used deceptive tactics in the Buzz rollout.

The story starts with Google’s privacy policy. From October 2004 until October 2010, Gmail users were told, "Gmail stores, processes and maintains your messages, contact lists and other data related to your account in order to provide service to you."  On the subject of the choices users had about the use of their personal information in all of Google’s products, including Gmail, the privacy policy said, "When you sign up for a particular service that requires registration, we ask you to provide personal information. If we use this information in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected, then we will ask for your consent prior to such use."  According to the FTC, statements like that conveyed that Google would use information from people signing up for Gmail only for the purpose of providing them with email service and that Google would ask for their consent before using their info for any other purpose.

So far, so good. But then came the roll-out of Google Buzz. The service allows users to share updates, comments, pictures, videos, and the like through “buzzes” made either publicly or privately to individuals or groups of users. When Buzz was launched, Gmail users were taken to a welcome screen that announced the new service and presented the “Sweet!” or “Nah” choice. If users clicked “Nah,” the FTC complaint alleges that their info was nonetheless shared in a number of ways. First, the user could still be “followed” by Gmail users who enrolled in Buzz. Second, if the Gmail user had previously created a Google profile, he or she could appear on the public Google profiles of Buzz enrollees who were following them. Third, a link to Buzz would show up on the list of links on the user’s Gmail page. If the user clicked on that link, he or she would be taken to the Buzz welcome screen and would be automatically enrolled in Buzz without any disclosure of that fact. In other words, users would be enrolled in certain features of Buzz even if they didn’t sign up.

So much for “Nah.”

The FTC’s complaint alleges that despite what it said in its privacy policy, Google didn’t use information from people signing up for Gmail just for the purpose of providing email service. Rather, the company used it to populate Buzz. Thus, said the FTC, the representations in Google’s privacy policy were false or misleading. Furthermore, the agency alleged that despite the promise in its privacy policy that Google would ask for consumers’ consent before using their information for another purpose, Google went ahead and used it to populate its social network without getting their permission. The FTC charged that was false or misleading and constituted a deceptive practice.

The next part of the story:  The not-so-sweet results when users clicked the “Sweet!” button

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