Magazine article Information Today

Bad Buzz for Google

Magazine article Information Today

Bad Buzz for Google

Article excerpt

It is safe to say that Google has had a tough time for the last couple of months on the litigation front. At a hearing in February to review the settlement of the proposed Google Books lawsuit, 21 speakers registered objections, and the U.S. Department of Justice raised antitrust and other concerns. Only five speakers were in favor of the settlement. As a result, a decision is not expected for months.

Then, in April, a group of photographers, artists, and illustrators filed a separate class action complaint alleging that the Google Books project (even if it is settled) will continue to infringe on copyrights for works that are included in books that Google scans. The disputed settlement proposal does not address these claims.

Buzz vs. the Federal Trade Commission

While the Google Books case has generated the most attention, Google has also faced challenges in the privacy arena. The release of its Google Buzz social networking service has generated at least two class action lawsuits, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint, and a scolding from government officials around the world.

Buzz was launched in February to great fanfare as Google's foray into social networking, a market currently dominated by Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Linkedln. Google's promotion of Buzz was based on Buzz's integration with Google's Gmail service, allowing the system to generate "followers" from existing Gmail contacts. Buzz also was designed to help users share pictures, videos, and updates from within the Google family of services, such as YouTube and Picasa.

Apparently, it helped share content too well. Within a week after its launch, Google was forced to make changes in the way Buzz gathers and releases user information. By the end of the week, even with those changes, users had generated a class action suit and a complaint to the FTC, both over the violation of user privacy.

'Public' Profiles

According to the FTC complaint, Buzz is activated automatically when users sign on to Gmail. ABuzz tool then creates a Buzz "following" list based on the most frequent email contacts. The complaint alleges that this activity took place without notice or warning to Gmail users. Buzz users then created "public profiles," which reportedly made the "following" and related "followed by" lists available to the general public. According to the complaint, this public release of contact lists was done by default and that several steps were required to hide the lists from public view.

Criticism quickly mounted about the practice of making a user's email contact list publicly available as part of his or her Buzz profiles. The FTC complaint noted that such lists often contain "deeply personal information, including the names and email addresses of estranged spouses, current lovers, attorneys and doctors." Within 4 days of Buzz's launch, Google made at least two changes to its system to give users more control of the "following" list, but the default remained to select all contacts with the burden on the user to "de-select." The default of the publicly available contact list also remained.

Unfair and Deceptive?

Notwithstanding the changes, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC asking it to investigate Google for engaging in unfair and deceptive business acts and practices. …

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