Google settles FTC privacy charge

Google settled Federal Trade Commission charges on March 30 that it violated consumers’ privacy, as well as its own policies, when it launched social network Google Buzz in February 2010.

The FTC had charged Google with violating the Federal Trade Commission Act by using Gmail customers’ information for Google Buzz without their consent, according to the FTC. The agency also said Google Buzz’s opt-out feature “did not fully remove the user from the social network.”

The FTC order also said Google violated its own company privacy policy, which stated that it should request consumers’ consent if their personal information was used “in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected.”

The settlement requires Google to institute and maintain a comprehensive privacy program that will be audited by an independent agency every two years for the next 20 years. Google will have to require opt-in permission from consumers if it makes a change to a product or service that results in the sharing of information with third parties, the FTC said.

The settlement marks the first time the FTC has ordered a company to institute a comprehensive privacy policy, it said. Google is responsible for hiring the independent auditor, but the results of each audit will not be made available to the public, said Jessica Rich, deputy director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC is not charging Google any monetary penalties, but if the company does not comply with the settlement order, it will be subject to a $16,000 fine for each violation, said Rich. She did not specify whether violations will be calculated on a per-case or per-consumer basis.

Rich said the order is not retroactive, and therefore does not apply to Google’s use of product to collect Wi-Fi information. She said the order will cover any future instances of “the type of conduct in the Google Wi-Fi issue.”

Last February, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC claiming Google Buzz violated consumers’ privacy.

Google referred requests for comment to a post on its official blog written by Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google.

“We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz,” she said on the blog. “While today’s announcement thankfully put this incident behind us, we are 100% focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.”

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