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Groups Push for Additions to Google Buzz Settlement

A coalition of privacy and consumer groups is pushing for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to add conditions, including requiring that Google get opt-in permission from users before collecting their data, to its proposed settlement over privacy problems related to the rollout of Google's Buzz social-networking service in early 2010.

Groups including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy are encouraging members of the public to call for additions to the proposed settlement, announced in March. The FTC has asked for public comments on the proposed settlement by May 2.

The proposed settlement requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program across its product line, the first time the FTC has required a company to implement such a program. The scope of the settlement gives people concerned about online privacy a historic chance to gain protections, said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director.

"The FTC is now in the position to essentially mandate a comprehensive privacy policy for Google, the largest provider of Internet services," Rotenberg said. "That's what makes this historic."

The public comments will send "a much larger message to all online companies about honoring their privacy policies," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Public comments will also inform Congress as it debates online privacy bills introduced this year, she said.

The privacy groups, in a new Fix Google Privacy campaign, are encouraging users of Google services to call for the FTC to put limits on the length of time Google can keep personal data, to prohibit Google from sharing data about users of its Books product, and to encrypt personal data it stores in the cloud.

The FTC should also require Google to build privacy protections into its Chrome browser and get opt-in permission before collecting personal data, members of the groups said.

Google should apply privacy protections to its "entire suite" of products, including its AdMob mobile advertising system and its Android mobile operating system, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. "We want to see a complete sweep, from top to bottom, where Google offers new controls for users about how it targets them," he said.

Google used personal data from its Gmail product to populate Buzz without getting permission of Gmail users. In some cases, Google shared personal information with Gmail users' ex-spouses, employers and doctors, FTC officials said.

Google declined to comment on the privacy campaign, instead referring to its blog post about the settlement.

But Steve DelBianco, executive director of e-commerce trade group NetChoice, said he's concerned that the FTC and privacy groups are pushing the Google settlement as a standard for the e-commerce industry. While Google may be able to live with tough restrictions on how it uses consumer data, smaller companies and new businesses may find the standards stifling, he said.

Getting opt-in permission to collect personal data may not be a difficult requirement for Google, which gets most of its revenue from search-related advertising, he said. Search advertising, unlike much other Web-based advertising, doesn't depend on collecting personal data to deliver ads.

Opt-in permission is a "path to destruction for the American leadership in free online services," DelBianco said. Targeted online advertising pays for free Web content and services, but many users would likely not opt into online tracking for advertising purposes, he said.

"The ultimate loser becomes the very same consumer these privacy advocates think they're protecting," he added.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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