Global privacy officials gang up on Google

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Global privacy officials gang up on Google

Search firm accused of riding roughshod over user privacy.

Privacy and data protection authorities from around the world are scheduled to meet in Washington DC later today to share their growing concerns about Google's privacy practices.

The meeting follows a letter (PDF) sent yesterday to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, calling on the search firm to set a better example on privacy to other online companies.

The meeting will be attended by privacy officials from Canada, France, Israel, The Netherlands and Spain, and has been supported by groups in Germany, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK.

"We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world's citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications," noted the letter.

"We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws."

Buzz was launched in early February to allow Gmail users to share real-time updates in a similar way to Twitter. However, Google integrated Gmail users into the social network without their consent, and had already selected the Gmail accounts that users would follow based on their most frequent contacts.

To make matters worse, all this information was made public, and Google had to revisit its privacy settings after receiving an avalanche of complaints.

However the letter argued that, even though Google has since addressed the privacy aspects of Buzz, it should not have been launched in the first place.

"We would have expected a company of your stature to set a better example. Launching a product in 'beta' form is not a substitute for ensuring that new services comply with fair information principles before they are introduced," it said.

The letter echoes the sentiments of former Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour, who has complained that too many web firms launch offerings that may infringe on user privacy, then wait to see whether the product sparks a negative reaction before it is withdrawn and modified.

The letter also points out that Google Buzz is not the only example of Google taking this approach.

"Street View was launched in some countries without due consideration of privacy and data protection laws and cultural norms," it said.

"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."

The letter outlined several privacy principles that Google should incorporate into its online services, and asked that the company engages with data protection authorities before launching services in the future that may affect privacy.

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