Google’s Social Network Relies On Unfair Practice, Consumer Watchdog Tells FTC; Public Interest Group Also Says New Gmail Link Would Violate ‘Buzz’ Agreement

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SANTA MONICA, CA – Google’s social network, Google+, relies on a flagrant and fundamental privacy design flaw that is an unfair business practice, Consumer Watchdog said today in a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

In addition, the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group said that the Internet giant’s plan to link Google+ accounts to Gmail, so that a user can send an email to a Gmail account, without knowing the address would violate the “Buzz” Consent Agreement that settled privacy invasions when Google launched its first attempt at a social network.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter to the Federal Trade Commission here:

“A user can be forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated. This is a fundamental privacy flaw and must be fixed,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director.  “People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated.  Operating a social network as Google is doing in a blatant attempt to build traffic and the user base is an unfair business practice violating Section 5.”

The letter to Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Commissioners Julie Brill, Maureen K. Ohlhausen and Joshua D. Wright continued:

“Compounding this unfair practice is a newly announced plan that would allow anyone with a Gmail account to send an email to another Gmail user’s inbox without knowing the address, but only the person’s Google+ account name.  The person wanting to send the email would simply add the targeted person to his Circles. Then when the name is typed in Gmail, the person is auto-suggested and the message can be sent.  This is an obvious invasion of a person’s privacy and a delight for potential stalkers.  As demonstrated by the attached report, Google needs to be policing its network, not making things easier for predators. Google plans to make the ability to receive an email from any Google+ user the default mode.  While it is possible to opt out of privacy intrusions, many – if not most – people will stay with the default setting.”

Consumer Watchdog said immediate action on both issues is important because of the way Google, in an apparent quest to grow the subscriber base as rapidly as possible, allowed Google+ to become a virtual playground for online predators and explicit sexual content.  Periodic monitoring of the service since last March through September by a tech industry whistleblower demonstrated the problem.  Consumer Watchdog shared the whistleblower’s report with Google in December and some of the most salacious and offensive accounts were deleted.  A copy of the report was included with the letter to the FTC.

Read the tech whistleblower’s report here:

To understand the unfair practice that violates Section 5 it is necessary to compare Google+ with other social networks such as Facebook, Consumer Watchdog said.  In Facebook for example, a person receiving a request from an individual to be their “friend” must approve that request.  If the person chooses not to accept, he or she is in no way associated with the individual.

On Google+ any individual can add a user to his “Circles.”  If the user does not appreciate the posts he receives from them, they can block the individual.  However, if anyone visits the person’s profile and he has opted to display publicly who is in his Circles, the user’s name and picture will still appear there.  The second user cannot remove himself from the first user’s Circles, no matter what, once that person has placed them in their Circles.

The planned Google+/Gmail feature clearly shares information with third parties in ways that are different than when much of the information was gathered, Consumer Watchdog said.  It is a material change from past information and data sharing practices on Google+ and Gmail. According to Section II (B) of the “Buzz” Consent Agreement, Google must “Obtain express affirmative consent from the user to such sharing.”  The Gmail/Google+ link plan as announced on Jan. 9 does not provide for affirmative consent when it is an opt-out choice rather than an opt-in decision. Perhaps a few people would like to receive messages from total strangers, Consumer Watchdog said.  That would be an allowable opt-in choice.  The current opt-out plan would violate the Buzz agreement, Consumer Watchdog said.

“Consumer Watchdog calls on the Commission to use your Section 5 authority and halt the unfair practice that is at the heart of Google+’s privacy intrusions: allowing someone to placed in another person’s Circles when they have no wish to be there,” the letter concluded. “You must also ensure that the ‘Buzz’ Consent Agreement is fully enforced and that Google obtain ‘express affirmative consent’ before changing data sharing practices.”

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John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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