FTC member slams 'irresponsible' Google over Buzz launch

Tech firms are increasingly ignoring privacy concerns in how the handle consumer data when launching new products, an FTC administrator has claimed.

Google Buzz

An outgoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioner has called Google "irresponsible" for ignoring consumer privacy data in its development of Google Buzz.

In strongly worded remarks to an FTC roundtable discussion on privacy this week, Harbour berated a number of technology firms for their approach to privacy, but singled out Google for specific criticism in its launch of Buzz.

At the time of its launch last month, the social networking add-on to Gmail was widely criticised for how it handled users' personal data, with Google twice having to revise the setup process after waves of complaints.

Harbour pointed to the controversy is just the latest example of technology companies' seeming willingness to publicly expose consumer data, particularly when launching new products also mentioning the controversial rollout of Facebook's new privacy settings last year.

"Protecting consumer privacy is of utmost importance," Harbour said. "Unfortunately, many of the companies that consumers look to as leaders and that we expect to be leaders still have not taken this message entirely to heart."

Referring directly to Buzz, Harbour who is leaving the FTC on 6 April said Google's heavy-handed launch of its first foray into social networking was "irresponsible conduct" from a company considered "one of the greatest technology leaders of our time".

Harbour argued that it was inappropriate for Google to assume implicit permission for it to reveal Gmail user data given that social networking barely existed when a large percentage of users had signed up and agreed the company's usage terms.

"Based on my observations, I do not believe that consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz. In the rush to compete with Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter, FriendFeed, Loopt and a host of other companies, it appears that Google really did not think through the privacy implications of this launch."

She stressed that consumers should be given the choice whether to opt in for any features that might expose their data when companies introduced a new service.

After being roundly criticed for its approach to privacy in launching Buzz, Google reaffirmed its commitment to protecting its users' data and remaining as transparent as possible, conceding it had learned some hard lessons from the Buzz experience.

"We quickly realised that we didn't get everything quite right. We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so," Gmail product manager Todd Jackson said in a statement after the second round of tweaks.

The FTC roundtable discussion was the last in a series of three such meetups as the organisation explores the evolving challenges posed by how technology products and companies interact with consumer data.

It has clarified that Harbour's remarks reflected her own views expressed in a private capacity and not those of the FTC itself.

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