Commentary

Global Privacy Regulators Take Aim At Buzz, Facebook, Street View

Privacy regulators from 10 countries complained on Tuesday that Google "betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws" when it launched Buzz.

"The privacy problems associated with your initial global rollout of Google Buzz on February 9, 2010 were serious and ought to have been readily apparent to you," the letter states. "In essence, you took Google Mail (Gmail), a private, one-to-one web-based email service, and converted it into a social networking service, raising concern among users that their personal information was being disclosed."

The letter was signed by privacy authorities in Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Google has since revised Buzz's settings but at launch the feature disclosed the names of users' email contacts, if users activated Buzz without changing the defaults.

Google, which has long since acknowledged that it botched the launch of Buzz, again repeated its mea culpa. "Of course we do not get everything 100% right--that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received," a spokesperson said in a statement.

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Notably, the global privacy authorities who met today didn't stop with bashing Buzz. They also found fault with other features, like Google's Street View, which displays pictures of public streets.

In their letter, the regulators asked how Google intends to protect privacy in the future. While that's a valid question, there clearly isn't any single answer that would make sense for every country in which Google operates.

Consider, while Buzz drew much U.S. criticism, Street View is seen as far less problematic in the U.S.

That's largely because U.S. First Amendment principles often trump notions of privacy. When it comes to photos, free-speech principles generally allow anyone to post pictures taken on public streets. (Google removes photos of people's homes upon request, though probably doesn't have to under U.S. law.) In the one known Street View case to result in litigation in the U.S., an appellate court dismissed a Pittsburgh couple's privacy lawsuit against Google. (The court did, however, allow the couple to sue for trespass because a photographer allegedly trespassed on a private driveway to shoot their house.)

While regulators highlighted concerns with Google, some also made clear that they aren't happy with other companies -- especially Facebook.

Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart referred several times to Facebook's decision last December to reclassify a host of information as publicly available. Facebook, she said, doesn't get to decide for itself what information is public when countries like Canada already have laws defining personal information.

She said that the implications of Google's actions with Buzz were "quite serious," but added that so are the implications of Facebook's December privacy changes. "We want to send a message that you can't use people's personal information in these ways."

Stoddart also emphasized that she is prepared to back up today's letter with litigation. "We hesitate to really take a punitive approach, which is why we're sending this message in this format," she said. But, she added: "If necessary, we will move to strong enforcement actions."

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