CANADA, 9 OTHER COUNTRIES RAISE PRIVACY CONCERNS ON GOOGLE BUZZ
WASHINGTON, APRIL 22, 2010 (REUTERS) By Lee-Anne Goodman, The Canadian Press - Canada's privacy commissioner is spearheading a 10-nation effort to ensure Google, the world's biggest online search engine, doesn't repeat the mistakes it's made with its first botched attempt at social networking and its controversial Street View program.
Jennifer Stoddart was in the U.S. capital on Tuesday with the privacy czars of Israel and Spain to raise continuing concerns about Google Buzz, part of Google's web-based e-mail - known as Gmail - that created public friend lists based on users' most frequent contacts.
Considered Google's answer to Facebook and Twitter, the company was forced to retool Buzz within days of its February launch amid outrage that it made private information public with neither advance notice nor the consent of its users. Earlier this month, Google tweaked Buzz yet again to further protect privacy.
Nonetheless, Stoddart said, privacy watchdogs must remain vigilant where Google, Facebook and other social networking sites are concerned.
Millions of people around the world are affected by lax privacy measures, she pointed out, including the 375 million alone in the 10 countries that on Monday sent Google CEO Eric Schmidt [GOOGLE BUZZ GOES BEYOND MESSAGES]
a stern letter admonishing him for Buzz and Street View, in particular.
In addition to Canada, Israel and Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.K. are also raising ongoing concerns with Google.
"We want to send a strong message that you can't go on using people's personal information without their consent in these kinds of ways to launch a new product," Stoddart said.
"Do your testing before, and make sure (you) comply with privacy legislation."
In their letter, Stoddart and the other privacy officials called on Google to create default settings that protect the privacy of users and to ensure that privacy control settings are both easy to use and prominently displayed in Gmail.
The letter also reiterated concerns about Street View, the Google mapping service that features street-level photographs taken by cameras mounted on cars that drive through neighborhoods around the world. They reminded Google that it launched the program without "due consideration of privacy and data protection laws and cultural norms."
"In that instance, you addressed privacy concerns related to such matters as the retention of unblurred facial images only after the fact, and there is continued concern about the adequacy of the information you provide before the images are captured," the letter said.
Both Google Buzz and Street View have caused real-life headaches for citizens.
One blogger's Gmail address book was exposed to her abusive ex-boyfriend, while dissidents in authoritarian regimes feared their contacts could be easily accessible to government monitors.
Others have complained that Street View has resulted in their homes being burglarized. A man in Yorkshire, England, recently alleged that his house was broken into after it was featured on Street View with an open garage door.
Stoddart's moment in the international spotlight comes after years at the forefront of raising awareness about privacy issues in the rapidly evolving era of social networking and information-sharing sites.
She's had her own personal experiences with new media privacy issues. In 2005, two years into her seven-year term as privacy commissioner, a journalist was able to buy her telecommunications data, both private information and from her government Blackberry, from an online data broker for US$200.
And yet Stoddart acknowledged Tuesday there was no appetite to bring the legal hammer down on Google or Facebook. Instead, she said, the 10 countries were hoping to appeal to reason.
Stoddart wouldn't bite when asked by a lawyer present if the U.S.-based Google's conduct was an example of American "cultural arrogance."
"We do have enforcement powers," Stoddart said. "But I don't think a lot of lawsuits are a helpful way to go. If necessary, we will move to stronger enforcement actions, but we want to get a strong message out first."
In response to the appeal, Google said it has "discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter."
"Of course, we do not get everything 100 per cent right - that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received," the company said in a statement.
The company also takes pains to be upfront about what data it collects from users and how that information is utilized, Google added.
Facebook also came in for criticism by Stoddart and her fellow privacy officials. In December, Stoddart said, the social network behemoth decided some of its users' private information was in fact public, including personal photographs.
"In all of our countries, personal information is personal information," Stoddart said.
"You can't just deem it to be public. This is an example of another kind of an egregious disregard for privacy laws in place when applications are being rolled out."
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
© Copyright, 2010
by PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS ONLINE
All rights reserved
PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS ONLINE [PHNO] WEBSITE