Google has settled legal matters with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over privacy issues surrounding its Buzz social networking service.
The company said that it had struck an agreement with the FTC which will settle the complaint and put new controls over how Google handles user privacy. Under the agreement, Google will receive independent audits every two years, and any sharing of user information will require prior consent.
“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honour them,” said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz.
“This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations.”
The settlement could help to put to rest a saga that Google would rather forget. Last year, the company was looking to enter the social networking space with its Buzz platform. Seeking to capitalise on an established user base from its Gmail platform, Buzz was automatically activated and updated for a number of users.
The result sparked a storm of criticism from both users and privacy advocates, who accused Google of sharing personal information on the Buzz service without first notifying users.
“We’d like to apologise again for the mistakes we made with Buzz,” wrote Google product and engineering director of privacy Alma Whitten on the Official Google Blog.
“While today’s announcement thankfully put this incident behind us, we are 100 per cent focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.”
According to some advocacy groups, however, the penalties were not nearly harsh enough. Consumer Watchdog lambasted the FTC for not levying a cash penalty.
“We appreciate this landmark privacy decision by the FTC, but Google needs to be punished and feel pain on its bottom line,” said Consumer Watchdog privacy project director John M. Simpson.
“Nothing will completely stop Google from invading users’ privacy until it gets hit where it hurts, its bank accounts.”