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FTC commissioner blasts Google and Facebook

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Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour blasted Google and Facebook on Wednesday for insufficient concern about consumers’ privacy.

    Harbour, who steps down from the commission next month, was speaking in Washington, DC, at the third of three FTC-sponosored "Privacy Roundtables."

    Grant Gross, writing for IDG News Service, quoted Harbour:

    "I am especially concerned that technology companies are learning harmful lessons from each other’s attempts to push the privacy envelop. Even the most respected and popular online companies, the ones who claim to respect privacy, continue to launch products where the guiding privacy policy seems to be, ‘Throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.’

    "I realize that companies continue to take a testing-the-water approach to privacy because no regulatory agency has sent a clear message that this behavior is unacceptable. I would like to see the commission take the position of intolerance toward companies that push the privacy envelop, then backtrack and modify their offerings after facing consumer and regulator backlash."

    Google was the target of particularly sharp criticism. Harbour said Google’s launch of its social networking service, "Buzz" was "irresponsible conduct."

    Buzz was launched as part of Google’s email and revealed lists of whom consumers most frequently emailed or with whom they chatted most frequently online. She called Buzz’s launch a "material change" in consumers’ relationship with Gmail: 

    "When users created Gmail accounts, they signed up for e-mail services. Their expectations did not include social networking."

    Formal complaints about how Facebook and Google handled privacy issues have been filed with the FTC. Though Harbour is scheduled to step down, her remarks seem to reflect an FTC that is now taking consumer privacy seriously. I think you can count on some significant FTC enforcement actions protecting consumers’ privacy rights in the near future.

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