The Federal Trade Commission announced on Wednesday that it has charged Google with deceptive privacy practices related to last year's rollout of Google Buzz, the quasi-social network contained within Gmail.
Concurrently, the FTC announced that Google has already agreed to settle the charges and implement a "comprehensive privacy program" -- one that will be audited for the next 20 years. The settlement also bars Google from “future privacy misrepresentations.”
It's the first time the FTC has ever charged a company with privacy violations, and the first time a company has agreed to implement such a program.
"We don’t always get everything right,"Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. "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. Today, we’ve reached an agreement with the FTC to address their concerns. We’ll receive an independent review of our privacy procedures once every two years, and we’ll ask users to give us affirmative consent before we change how we share their personal information."
She added: "We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz."
"Google was just plain wrong when it opted people into Buzz without their consent," Commerce Committee chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller said in a statement. "This should be a wake-up call for online businesses -- both large and small -- of the need to be clear and honest about how the personal information of consumers is collected and used.”
According to the FTC complaint, "Google led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the network, the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective." For users who joined, "the controls for limiting the sharing of their personal information were confusing and difficult to find," the FTC said.
On the day Buzz was launched, Gmail users got a message announcing the new service and were given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.” However, some Gmail users who clicked on “Nah...” were nonetheless enrolled in certain features of the Google Buzz social network. For those Gmail users who clicked on “Sweet!,” they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google also offered a “Turn Off Buzz” option that did not fully remove the user from the social network.
Google received thousands of complaints from users as a result.
Last fall, a federal judge gave preliminary approval for Google to settle a similar lawsuit, stemming from complaints by Gmail users that the company's Google Buzz product violated their privacy.
That settlement required that Google pay $8.5 million to fund Internet-privacy research and education.