Lawmakers Seek Investigation Of Google Buzz

Posted on Mon 03/29/2010 by

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By Wendy Davis

For Google, the fallout from Buzz shows no signs of letting up.

In the latest development, a group of lawmakers said today that they have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s complaint alleging that Google violated users’ privacy with Buzz’s rollout. In a letter to FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, 11 Congress members said they were concerned by several aspects of Buzz, including “Google’s practice of automatically using consumers’ email address books to create contact lists for Buzz and then publicly disclosing the names of these private contacts by posing this information online.”

The letter also complained that Buzz “could inadvertently reveal a journalist’s confidential sources or disclose information about a consumer’s medical history, political views, and whereabouts.” Signatories were Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Joe Barton (R-Texas), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Mike Burgess (R-Texas), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Donna Christensen (D-V.I.).

Aside from taking issue with Buzz, the lawmakers also asked the FTC to examine how Google’s potential acquisition of AdMob “will affect competition and Google’s incentives to offer robust consumer privacy protections.”   …  

When Google launched Buzz, the feature initially revealed information about the names of users’ email contacts, if users activated Buzz without changing the defaults. Since then, Google has significantly revised the service; now, it merely suggests followers, rather than automatically creating them. “When we realized that we’d unintentionally made many of our users unhappy, we moved quickly to make significant product improvements to address their concerns,” Google said in a statement.

Critics like EPIC say Buzz should be entirely opt-in, and without even automatically suggesting followers.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have raised concerns about how Google handles consumers’ privacy. Barton, for one, previously urged Google to provide reassurance that its acquisition of DoubleClick wouldn’t lead to privacy infringement.

But the company’s rollout of Buzz does seem to mark the first time that Google gave critics solid ammunition, demonstrating one way in which the company could reveal information about Web users, even if inadvertently. And critics — including lawmakers — aren’t about to stop pursuing the matter simply because Google revised its service after launching it. Nor should they. Once private information is disclosed, there’s no taking it back. While Google can change features like Buzz going forward, that doesn’t do much to protect, or compensate, anyone whose privacy was already compromised.

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Posted in: 111th Congress