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Google settles Buzz privacy case with FTC, apologizes

Google Buzz logoGoogle and the FTC have just announced that they've reached a settlement in the FTC's investigation of Google's privacy violations committed during the rollout of Google Buzz, the company's social network built inside of Gmail.

One of the reasons Buzz never quite took off may have been the enormous backlash surrounding its launch, and Google's handling of Gmail users' privacy. The FTC claims that by not adequately informing users of the privacy issues surrounding Buzz, Google has violated the FTC Act. Specifically, Google didn't properly inform Gmail users that they had the option to decline or leave the social network, and the controls for limiting the sharing of personal information were confusing and difficult to find. If you remember, before the backlash kicked in and Google subsequently backtracked, upon joining Buzz the identities and email addresses of the people you frequently emailed were made public by default. Google received "thousands of emails" complaining about this situation, the FTC claims.

Today's settlement bars Google from misrepresenting its users' privacy in the future, requires it to put into place a comprehensive privacy program, and will subject the company to independent reviews of its privacy procedures every two years for the next two decades. Google adds that it will always ask its users for explicit consent before it changes how it shares their personal information. According to TechCrunch, the FTC says this is the first time in history where a settlement has required a company to do so many things to protect users' privacy.

That all sounds very good, and like a victory for Internet users everywhere, the little guy, you and me, right? Then carefully consider the following, please: Google will be the first company ever to be subjected to such requirements. And the only one, at least for the foreseeable future.

Now quickly think of another company that's been in the negative spotlight in recent years for privacy issues, and been there a lot more times than Google. That's right -- Facebook. Facebook isn't required to do any of the stuff Google will have to. Google will need to ask for explicit consent before it changes how it shares people's personal information -- but Facebook has never had to, and won't in the future either. In fact, Facebook has changed how it shares its users' information numerous times, nearly always without bothering to let the users actively choose for themselves. This has been thoroughly documented on the Internet, but strangely hasn't prompted a settlement of any sort with the FTC. Even ignoring Facebook, who knows how many companies in the social sphere have done worse things with their users' privacy expectations than Google?

What this is then, in effect, is the beginning of a strange era with regard to privacy on the Internet, where one company (Google) is being held by a US Government agency to a much higher standard than any of its competitors. No matter how much you may hate Google, that ought to make you pause for just a second.

Tags: breaking, buzz, ftc, ftc investigation, ftc settlement, FtcInvestigation, FtcSettlement, google, google buzz, google buzz privacy, GoogleBuzz, GoogleBuzzPrivacy, Internet, privacy, social networking, SocialNetworking