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  • April 2014
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Google Gets Double Secret Probation

It seems fairly clear that Google engineers thought it would be cute to name buttons on its Google Buzz social network, “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” “Nah, go to my inbox,” and “Turn Off Buzz,” but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – and thousands of consumers who joined Buzz – did not think it was very funny that saying “no” meant saying yes to to enrolling in some features of Buzz.  Nor was anyone pleased that Google failed “to adequately disclose that consumers’ frequent email contacts would become public by default.”  That comment and others were contained in a scathing announcement of a proposed settlement regarding the FTC’s complaint that Google engaged in deceptive practices and violated the company’s privacy promises to consumers.

The FTC noted that this is the first time a company has been required “to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers’ information.”  The settlement “bars Google from misrepresenting the confidentiality of individuals’ information,’” requires the company to “obtain users’ consent before sharing their information with third parties” if there is any change in the promises made when the users’ information was first collected, forces Google to “establish and maintain a comprehensive privacy program,” and 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” (that’s the double secret probation part of the agreement).

Google has been around since 1998; has a near-monopoly Internet search market share; is under scrutiny by legislators and antitrust regulators; has a business model that depends almost entirely on algorithms derived from collecting and analyzing information about individuals for advertising purposes (not that there’s anything wrong with that); “mistakenly” took in private information when it was creating Street View for Google Earth; asked for the Social Security numbers of children because they supposedly did not want duplicate submissions for its “Doodle 4 Google” contest (see my February 23 blog on that brilliant idea); and the company’s number six principle is that “you can make money without doing evil.”  Privacy violations may not be evil, but they are certainly not ethical.  And it certainly boggles the mind that a Google did not think about the consequences of its actions or adhere to its own privacy principles long before the FTC had to slap them with unprecedented sanctions.

Doodle 4 Google is described on the company’s website as being “all about creativity and enjoying designing fun things.  Think about how you want to change the world.”  Following the FTC settlement announcement and other recent problems, more and more people will think hard about how they want to change Google, which may not be so much fun for the company.

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