EPIC files suit over Google Buzz, argues violation of data privacy laws

10 03 2010

As the hype surrounding last month’s launch of Google Buzz refuses to cease, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission addressing privacy concerns. The public interest research group, which advocates the protection of privacy rights in the electronic information age, accused Google Buzz of converting the personal information of Gmail users, without consent, into public information on the new social networking site.

EPIC, which will send officials from its organization to coordinate a session on The Future of Privacy and the Web at the FutureWeb conference in Raleigh on April 30, challenged Google Buzz in a formal complaint. It argued the social networking application caused “clear harm to service subscribers” when it automatically drew from contacts in the program into the social network.

Gmail users said they didn’t necessarily want all of their e-mail contacts to follow them in the social network, which is designed similarly to Facebook’s interface. User contact information was made public, though they have the option to set it to remain private. Still, Google Buzz users reported the interface was somewhat confusing, and it was difficult to figure out how to alter privacy settings.

Since the launch of Google Buzz on Feb. 9, Google has changed elements of the service twice. In an attempt to directly address customers’ concerns over privacy, it clarified the option to not display follower information on public profiles. It also added a feature that makes it possible to block followers who have not created a Google Profile.

EPIC wrote in the complaint that, “This change in business practices and service terms violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google’s own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws.”

The Internet privacy watchdog group urged the FTC to launch an immediate investigation into Google’s social networking application to determine whether they should issue a punishment. EPIC called for the FTC to force Google to present Google Buzz as a voluntary service rather than an opt-out application. The group requested that Google provide notice and request consent from users before making any more changes to the privacy policies.

Google says it welcomes all feedback on its latest service, allowing it to make the appropriate changes to Google Buzz. The Washington Post reports:

“We’ve already made a few changes based on user feedback, and we have more improvements in the works,” a Google representative said in a statement. “We also welcome dialogue with EPIC and appreciate hearing directly from them about their concerns. Our door is always open to organizations with suggestions about our products and services.”

EPIC soon filed an amendment to its FTC complaint, in response to a letter from the FTC that acknowledged its complaint, but pointed out the agency could neither confirm nor deny whether it is pursuing a related investigation. EPIC responded to the letter, arguing that Google violated its own Gmail Privacy Policy by using Gmail users’ contact lists and related data for a separate, unrelated service.

A week after EPIC issued its initial complaint, Gmail user Andranik Souvalian sued Google in Rhode Island over similar concerns. Souvalian says that, “Google intentionally exceeded its authorization to access and control confidential and private information.” He argues that Google Buzz is directly in violation of the Stored Communications Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

By Ashley Dischinger

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