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FTC Complaint Cites Privacy Violations In Google Buzz Auto-Following

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging that Google's new social networking service Google Buzz jeopardized users' privacy by displaying frequent contacts from their Gmail account.

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Google recently came under fire after the launch of its new social networking Google Buzz last week, which displayed publicly available social networking lists based on Gmail users' most frequent address book contacts.

Specifically, the new Google Buzz service integrates with users' Gmail accounts, and allows them to post status updates and share content on friends' social networking profiles.

Among other things, the EPIC's complaint contends Google Buzz could cause clear and distinct harm to users, alleging that the practice of displaying frequent Gmail contacts "violated user expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's privacy policy and may have violated federal wiretap laws."

Meanwhile, the BBC reported Tuesday that Google Buzz only underwent internal testing, circumventing the company's external processes that rely on extensive outside user feedback.

Critics and privacy rights organizations say the Google Buzz contact list policies, which Google calls "auto-following," jeopardizes journalists, employees, businesses, and others who depend on privacy by allowing outsiders to easily identify those with whom the user most frequently contacts.

"If you took the default options and didn't opt-out or edit this list during profile creation, the list becomes part of your profile," said blogger Kurt Opsahl in an Electronic Frontier Foundation post Friday. "Since who you email with frequently can often be private information (reporters and sources, doctors and patients, former significant others, etc), making this list public can create serious problems."

Google has since acknowledged that it bungled the launch and appears to be taking initial steps to address the problems. Google executives contended that the motivation behind "auto-following" was to give the users readily available list of "friends" based on the people they were already contacting.

"With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that you wouldn't have to manually peck out your social network from scratch," said Todd Jackson, Google product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz in a blog post Saturday. "Many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile."

Google said that it was now working "extremely hard" to fix the problems, according to the BBC and has since started to revise its policies.

Following the firestorm of complaints, Google said that Google Buzz would only suggest -- not post lists publicly -- of people who a user could "friend." Google also announced plans that would allow users to more easily disable Google Buzz service, while ensuring that Google Buzz wouldn't automatically connect to online Picasa photo albums and other Web applications, according to the BBC.

This is hardly the first privacy complaint Google has received in recent months. The EPIC also noted in its recent complaint that the FTC has failed to take immediate action regarding Google and cloud computing services.

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