US lawmakers ask for FTC investigation of Google Buzz

Eleven representatives question whether the launch of Buzz breached consumer privacy

Eleven U.S. lawmakers have asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's launch of its Buzz social-networking product for breaches of consumer privacy.

The representatives -- six Democrats and five Republicans from the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- noted in their letter that Google's roll-out of Buzz exposed private information of users to Google's Gmail service to outsiders. In one case, a 9-year-old girl accidentally shared her contact list in Gmail with a person who has a "sexually charged" username, the lawmakers said in the letter, sent to the FTC Friday and released Monday.

"Due to the high number of individuals whose online privacy is affected by tools like this -- either directly or indirectly --- we feel that these claims warrant the commission's review of Google's public disclosure of personal information of consumers through Google Buzz," said the letter, organized by Representative John Barrow, a Georgia Democrat.

In the original public version of Buzz, launched in February, the program compiled a list of the Gmail contacts the users most frequently e-mailed or chatted with and automatically started following those people. Those lists were made public, giving strangers access to the contacts of Buzz users.

There were a flurry of complaints from Gmail users, and Google made changes to Buzz within a couple of days.

Asked for a response to the letter, a Google spokeswoman said user transparency and control are important to the company. "When we realized that we'd unintentionally made many of our users unhappy, we moved quickly to make significant product improvements to address their concerns," she said, repeating Google's past statements on Buzz. "Our door is always open to discuss additional ways to improve our products and services moving forward. "

The lawmakers asked the FTC to get answers to four questions from Google, including whether the company will revise its Gmail privacy policy to obtain consent from consumers for sharing their information. The lawmakers also want to know if Google was using the personal information collected through Buzz to deliver targeted advertising.

The representatives also questioned how Google's planned acquisition of mobile advertising vendor AdMob will affect consumer privacy.

In mid-March, outgoing FTC member Pamela Jones Harbour ripped into Google for its handling of Buzz, calling the product's launch "irresponsible conduct."

In February, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the FTC, saying that Google Buzz engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that violated Google's privacy policy and federal wiretap laws.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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