Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Officials from Germany, Canada, France and seven other countries are raising privacy concerns about Google's mapping service and the company's fumbled foray into social networking.
Although the concerns they raise are not new, the officials said the online search leader "too often" forgets people's privacy rights as it rolls out new technologies.
The bulk of the complaints are over Buzz, which Google launched in February as part of its Gmail service. Buzz quickly came under fire for automatically creating public circles of friends for users, based on their most frequent e-mail contacts. After complaints, the company apologized and made changes to the service.
But in the letter sent Monday to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, privacy and data-protection officials from the 10 countries said they are still "extremely concerned about how a product with such significant privacy issues was launched in the first place."
Google Street View, a mapping service that includes street-level photos taken by cameras mounted on cars that sweep through neighborhoods, is another area of concern. The officials complained that Google launched it in various countries without "due consideration of privacy and data protection laws and cultural norms."
"In that instance, you addressed privacy concerns related to such matters as the retention of unblurred facial images only after the fact, and there is continued concern about the adequacy of the information you provide before the images are captured," officials said in their letter, posted on the Web site of Canada's privacy commissioner.
Google said it has "discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter."
"Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right - that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received," the company said in a statement, adding that it tries very hard to be upfront about what data it collects from users and how it uses the information.
The other countries that signed the letter are Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The officials called on Google to create default settings that protect users' privacy and to ensure that privacy control settings are prominent and easy to use.
"We recognize that Google is not the only online company with a history of introducing services without due regard for the privacy of its users," the letter says. "As a leader in the online world, we hope that your company will set an example for others to follow."
Facebook is one such company, drawing the ire of officials in Canada, Germany and elsewhere for the way it handles user privacy. Canada's privacy commissioner has been investigating changes Facebook made late last year to its privacy settings. Those had given users more granular controls but also nudged them to reveal more to the public.