Privacy Commissioners to Google: Don’t Be Evil Stupid

Published on April 20, 2010
by John Paczkowski

Months after its ill-starred launch, Google’s Buzz social networking service continues to inspire outcry among privacy advocates. The latest to cry foul: An alliance of privacy commissioners from 10 countries who think Google’s “sorry we didn’t get everything right” apology for its failure to adequately protect the privacy of Buzz users is a cop-out.

In a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, privacy commissioners from France, Germany, Canada, and the U.K., among other countries, slagged the search giant for failing to take adequate account of privacy considerations when rolling out new services.

“We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications,” the commissioners wrote. “We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws….”

Mincing no words, they added, “It is unacceptable to roll out a product that unilaterally renders personal information public, with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise. Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world.”

While the first few lines of the statement largely repeat criticisms we’ve heard before, the last two really get at the crux of the entire debacle. If Google (GOOG) didn’t recognize the privacy flaws in Buzz before it released it to the public, it should have. And if it did recognize them and released the service anyway figuring it would address them later–well, that’s just plain reckless.

“Sorry we didn’t get everything right” doesn’t absolve the company from its misstep, though Google clearly seems to think it does, according to the statement it issued on the letter.

“We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect, and how we use it, as well as to build meaningful controls into our products. Google Dashboard, the Ads Preferences Manager and our data liberation initiative are all good examples of such initiatives,” the company said.

“Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right–that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received. We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today’s letter–instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about.”

[Image credit: Asaf Hanuka, Tropical Toxic]

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