Google’s Bungled Buzz Launch “Irresponsible,” Says FTC Commissioner

Published on March 17, 2010
by John Paczkowski

Outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour had some choice words for Google today. In remarks delivered at the last in a series of three FTC privacy roundtables, Harbour, who is leaving the agency in April, lambasted Google for the privacy-violating launch of its new social networking service, Buzz, and the company’s foolish decision to transform our private Gmail address books into public social networks.

The way Google (GOOG) handled the Buzz rollout was “irresponsible,” said Harbour. “Google constantly tells the public to ‘just trust us,'” she said. “But based on my observations, I do not believe consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz….When Gmail users created their accounts, they signed up for e-mail services. Their expectations did not include social networking.”

Indeed, they did not, as evidenced by the breadth and volume of the outcry over the service. And while Google, to its credit, quickly adjusted Buzz to address privacy complaints, the fact that it had to do so at all is cause for concern. Publicly exposing user data first and addressing questions about the exposure later is poor form and sets a lousy precedent.

Said Harbour: “Technology companies are learning harmful lessons from each other’s attempts to stretch the privacy envelop. Even the most respected and popular online companies, those who say they respect privacy, insist on launching products where the guiding privacy policy seems to be, ‘Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.'”

Tough to argue with this given what we saw with Buzz, though I’m sure Google will try. I’ve asked the company for comment and will update here if I hear back.

UPDATE: Google spokesman Brian Richardson just called in with the following statement: “User choice and transparency are top of mind for us. When we realized that we had unintentionally made users unhappy, we worked quickly to make immediate changes.”

[Image credit: Asaf Hanuka, Tropical Toxic]

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