Last year, Google launched Buzz, a social network “built right into Gmail, so you don’t have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch,” boasted the search giant. “Buzz brings this network to the surface by automatically setting you up to follow the people you email and chat with the most…[and] building an easy-to-use sharing experience that richly integrates photos, videos and links, and makes it easy to share publicly or privately.”
Much to Google’s dismay, Buzz turned out to be a huge bust, and not only because it was incredibly unpopular among users. The social network was riddled with privacy concerns, so much so that the Federal Trade Commission charged the company with using “deceptive tactics” and violating “its own privacy promises to consumers.”
Today, Google settled with the FTC. As part of the proposed settlement, Google is barred from “future privacy misrepresentations,” and is required to participate in a comprehensive privacy program that includes “regular, independent privacy audits” for the next 20 years. According to the FTC, this marks the first time an FTC settlement order has required the implementation of a comprehensive privacy program–in other words, Google is essentially on FTC probation.
“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations.”
In the original complaint, the FTC alleged that Google misled users over how much personal information would be shared on Buzz, and further alleged that privacy controls were “confusing an difficult to find.” Even some users who chose not to join the service, the FTC said, were nevertheless signed up for some features of Google’s failed social network. “Google also offered a ‘Turn Off Buzz’ option that did not fully remove the user from the social network,” the FTC added.
In response to the settlement, Alma Whitten, a director of privacy at Google, apologized for the company’s errors.
“We don’t always get everything right. The launch of Google Buzz fell short of our usual standards for transparency and user control–letting our users and Google down. While we worked quickly to make improvements, regulators–including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission–unsurprisingly wanted more detail about what went wrong and how we could prevent it from happening again,” wrote Whitten on Google’s blog. “We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz. While today’s announcement thankfully put this incident behind us, we are 100 percent focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.”