• The Buzz on Google’s New Service: Privacy Complaint, Lawsuit
  • March 19, 2010
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Barely a week after launching its social networking service, Buzz, Google faced a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, followed by a class-action lawsuit alleging privacy violations.

    Google Buzz was launched as the company’s answer to MySpace and Facebook, but was instantly attacked by critics.

    As originally presented, Buzz was automatically added to all Gmail (Google’s e-mail system) users, and the program then turned users’ frequent e-mail users into followers.

    The users’ information and followers were also made public by default, including their photos and information shared in other Google products, like the Picasa photo-sharing site.

    In response, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC, requesting an investigation into whether any consumers were harmed, and seeking to have enrollment in Buzz be optional.

    Buzz “violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google’s own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws,” according to EPIC’s complaint.

    An e-mail address book could reveal the names of a user’s doctor, lawyer, romantic partner, a journalist’s confidential sources, or other personal information, the complaint noted.

    Just days later, a putative class action was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging that Buzz violated federal privacy law by disclosing to the public users’ e-mail contacts.

    “An individual’s e-mail contacts may be a different group of people (for example, professional contacts) than the group with whom a user would want to be in a social network,” according to the complaint. “By implementing the Buzz program, Google forced upon its Gmail users Google’s own definition of a proper social network, all in an effort to jump-start Google’s entry into a new consumer market.”

    Specifically, the suit alleges violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and public disclosure of private facts. Gmail had 31.2 million users in January, according to the complaint, which looks to include all those users whose accounts were automatically linked to Buzz.

    Google issued a series of apologies on its blog and has twice tweaked its program since the initial rollout. Now new users are presented with a list of “suggested” followers.

    “We’ve already made a few changes based on user feedback, and we have more improvements in the works,” said Victoria Katsarou, a spokeswoman for the company. “We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience.”

    Despite the changes, both the FTC complaint and the class action claim that Google is not doing enough, saying the modifications do not go far enough to address privacy concerns.

    Why it matters: Given the myriad of privacy issues Facebook has faced over the last few months, Google’s troubles with its new social networking program come as no surprise. Companies that engage in social networking or deal with any form of personal information should proceed with caution, as privacy has become a hot-button topic for both the FTC and consumers.