This brings us back to the Google Buzz settlement. Google had a privacy agreement in place with its Gmail customers stating that it would only use information it had collected for those email accounts for certain purposes, none of which included joining a social network. Yet when it launched Buzz, according to the FTC report, Google led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the social network, even though the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective. For users who joined the Buzz network, the controls for limiting the sharing of their personal information were confusing and difficult to find, the agency alleged. The report goes on to detail how privacy controls and details about what would be shared were misleading, deceptive or just plain sloppy.
“When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “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 requires Google to obtain users’ consent before sharing their information with third parties if the company changes its products or services in a way that results in information sharing that is contrary to any privacy promises made when the user’s information was collected. The settlement further requires Google to establish and maintain a comprehensive privacy program, and it requires that for the next 20 years, the company have audits conducted by independent third parties every two years to assess its privacy and data protection practices. Considering how many different aspects of the Internet Google is involved with, having the government looking over it’s shoulder for the next two decades should have a major impact on future developments in the privacy arena. Not only will Google have to be more careful about the services it launches, but other companies will no doubt be wary that the FTC will come knocking on its doors. This is a big win for privacy, but it’s a fight that has only just begun.