Adventures in Privacy: Google Buzz

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission requesting that the government agency investigate Google regarding privacy concerns with Google Buzz.   Google created and launched Google Buzz, a hybrid Twitter/Facebook type service, to complement GMail, its email service.  Like, Yahoo! Connect, the service is free. Though Google Buzz appears as an icon on Gmail, users have to elect to use the service.

Nicholas Carlson reported in the Business Insider that people noticed some privacy related issues shortly after the Google Buzz launch.  Basically, Google assumed who users wanted to follow, and who would want to follow them, from users’ email contact lists.  Significantly, unless users opted-out, Google made the list public.  According to Mr. Carlson, the option to opt-out was written in very fine print and easy to miss.

Google responded to the outcry fairly quickly:   Lists were no longer automatically generated nor made public by default.  They even offered an option to disable Google Buzz entirely.

Regardless, EPIC has filed a complaint with the FTC that claims Google is guilty of Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices.   In response to the complaint, a Google spokesperson points out in this article that the service is optional and people choose to use it.

As I have previously reported, Google takes broad interests in the content and data its users transmit and upload on its services.  Its position on privacy is really no different.

People seem to have adopted Google products, like Gmail and Google Docs, because they are both good and free.  However, it is a misnomer that the services are free.  The consideration (i.e. cost) for the services is the information (i.e. data) that Google can convert to cash via advertising or other purposes.

Google claims that is transparent when it comes to privacy and the steps it takes to protect data.  It recently launched Google Dashboard, an application that allows users of its services to manage the data associated with their accounts.   Google has a privacy policy which applies to all of its services, and each service has a policy unique to the type of information transmitted and collected.

Many lawyers and other professionals who have a legal, or ethical, duty to maintain the confidences of their clients are using Google services from Gmail to Google Docs.    The Google Docs privacy policy states the company will use ” information internally to deliver the best possible service to you, such as improving the Google Docs user interface and maintaining a consistent and reliable user experience.”   However, the overall Google privacy policy, which also applies to Google Docs, provides that the company may use  user content in any manner  “including the display of customized content and advertising.”

Regardless of how Google collects the data it aggregates to sell advertising, or that it removes personally identifiable information like IP addresses, from the data it collects, Google’s services are not, and have never been, private.  But data is the price of admission for the use of Google’s free services. So, Google’s initial launch of Google Buzz as a public service with few concerns about privacy does not seem like either a deceptive or an unfair trade practice to me.

For more information about the importance of reading terms of service and privacy policies see:

Websites out of Tune with Musicians Rights


Search Engine Land has an account of a conference call Google held to explain how they blew Google Buzz. Essentially, they learned that many people who use their services have a different perspective on privacy than they do.  That’s all good and well, but my question is why would people really concerned with privacy use Google services.

About Nancy Prager

Nancy Prager is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She represents a wide range of clients on matters from intellectual property to estate planning. Before starting her own practice, she practiced with firms in Memphis and Atlanta, as well as providing business development services to technology companies. She launched her practice to offer strategic legal services to clients at an affordable rate. Additionally, Nancy is a sought after speaker and writer on issues related to the convergence of intellectual property, technology and media. Nancy was asked to write a series of commentaries for on the emerging legal issues related to the transmission of content on the internet. She has spoken to organizations and conferences around the country on issues related to the convergence of technology, content and intellectual property, as well as strategic legal issues for companies, individuals and artists. Journalists often rely on Nancy as a resource for emerging legal issues. Nancy has a strong commitment to social justice. She has founded, or co-founded, a number of organizations and programs that provide tangible services to their constituencies. For example, while a student in law school she developed the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center that provides legal services to victims of domestic violence. Additionally, she has been involved with a number of organizations that provide services to children and their families, including serving on the boards of the Harwood Center and Porter Leath Children’s Services. She is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Law and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is a member of the District of Columbia Bar, the State Bar of Georgia and the State Bar of Tennessee. She has been a member of a variety of legal organizations including the Copyright Society of the USA and the American Bar Association.
This entry was posted in Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse, EPIC, Federal Trade Commission, FTC, Google, Google Buzz, privacy, privacy policy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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