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3/30/2011
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Google Settles FTC Privacy Suit Over Buzz

Internet giant agrees to 20 years of third-party audits, as well as implementing programs to protect users' personal data and contacts.

Real Time Conversation With Google Translate
(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Real Time Conversation With Google Translate
As a result of this misrepresentation, Google has agreed to get users' consent before the company shares that information with third parties if Google makes changes to its products or services that alter the privacy promise made when the data originally was collected. In addition, Google will create and maintain a "comprehensive privacy program," and will hire a third party to conduct an audit of its privacy and data-protection practices every two years, the settlement said.

"Covered info includes all info collected from or about consumers including search," the FTC tweeted. "Google could be subject to civil penalties in the amount of $16,000 per violation (standard) for violating consent decree."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the FTC soon after Google released Buzz, based on the developer's data-privacy practices.

When Buzz debuted, Gmail users received a message about the service and got two options: "Sweet! Check out Buzz," and "Nah, go to my inbox." Even users who selected the opt-out "Nah" button were, however, enrolled in some features of Buzz, the FTC said. Google did not inform users who opted in to Buzz that their most frequently emailed contacts would, by default, be made public, the government said. In addition, the "Turn Off Buzz" choice did not completely remove users from the network, according to the FTC.

The government agency was not alone in its complaints. Consumers submitted thousands of grievances complaining about public disclosure of their email contacts which, at times, included former spouses, competitors, patients, students, and employers, the complaint said. Businesses also responded: In May, the University of California-Davis decided to end its Gmail pilot, which could have led to campus-wide deployment, because faculty members doubted Google's ability to keep their correspondences private, in large part because of Google Buzz and international outrage -- and lawsuits -- about the social network.

Google did make some changes to Buzz in response to those criticisms. In September, for example, Google simplified its privacy policies in an effort to make them easier to understand and to operate with greater transparency.

Last year, several independent lawsuits were rolled into a class action suit against Google and Buzz. Google settled that case in November, committing $8.5 million, less legal fees, to "organizations promoting privacy education and policy on the Web," according to Google.

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