Google has agreed to submit to privacy audits for the next 20 years, as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.
The agency filed a formal complaint and charged the tech giant with deceptive tactics and violating its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz. The FTC says when launching Buzz, Google forced consumers to sign up for the social network and used the information collected from public areas on Buzz. That violated Google's own bylaws as well as the privacy requirements of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which allows companies to lawfully transfer personal data from the European Union to the United States.
As part of the complaint, the FTC asked Google to stop misrepresenting privacy practices, implement a comprehensive privacy program and get regular independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. This is the first time the FTC has forced a company to implement a privacy program.
The FTC says Google led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether they wanted to join the Google Buzz network. However, if even if they declined, they were still enrolled in certain features of Google Buzz. Further, the FTC says the people who did agree to join the network were not informed their private information, in this case the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently, would be made public by default.
When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them, said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, in a statement. 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 Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC as soon a Google Buzz was introduced. A spokesperson for the FTC said the government organization does not reveal how it chooses to investigate a subject matter. The FTC spokesperson could not say whether any other investigations would be launched into Google's privacy practices.
The FTC says Google made significant changes to its Buzz service following widespread complaints. It allowed people to turn off Buzz all together, as well as change some of the personal setting to make it more privatized.
On its blog, Google apologized for its mistakes and said, Today, we've reached an agreement with the FTC to address their concerns. We'll receive an independent review of our privacy procedures once every two years, and we'll ask users to give us affirmative consent before we change how we share their personal information.
In the past, many have criticized Google for its privacy policies (or lack thereof). In 2008, a couple from Pittsburgh sued Google for invasion of privacy, stemming from the appearance of their house Street View cameras. The company has also been aimed at by government officials in regards to keeping data from internet searches for too long.