Google Buzz: A Recap of the Controversy and the Current Legal Issues

Google’s launch last week of Buzz, its social networking tool for Gmail, raised a furor over its privacy effects. As the New York Times reports, many Gmail users were outraged that their Gmail address books were turned into a public contact list, viewable to everyone in their address books, in Buzz.  Furthermore, Buzz is opt-out rather than opt-in. Google automatically enrolled all Gmail users into Buzz without notice or opportunity to decline enrollment. This ill-starred launch has had a variety of consequences for Gmail users, ranging from dissatisfaction to potentially dangerous exposure of private information. It also has had, and may continue to have, legal consequences for Google itself, which we explore in this post.

Opting in vs. opting out, and the difficulties of opting out

Google automatically enrolled all Gmail users into Buzz without permission, rather than giving them the choice to opt in. Users could opt out after the automatic enrollment, but they could not avoid enrollment in the first place. And Google initially made things difficult and confusing for users who wished to opt out. The “turn off Buzz” button at the bottom of the Gmail inbox screen did not actually turn off Buzz unless the user deleted her Google profile and blocked her followers, as CNET reported. This initially confused many users although, as CNET explains here, Google has now made disabling Buzz much easier in response to complaints.

The cause of the outcry

One major cause for complaint was the way Google took users’ private e-mail address list and made them public in Buzz. The outrage over Google’s action highlights one of the few clear public-private boundary expectations that exist in online communications: we do not expect our e-mail communications or contacts to be known to our personal acquaintances.  On Facebook, those we have “friended” can generally see each other. But in e-mail, we do not expect each of our e-mail contacts to be made aware of each other simply because they’re in the same address book.  The myriad personal implications of this are obvious.  For example, people do not necessarily want their former significant others to know the e-mail addresses of their current partners. The consequences of this privacy breach can be severe: one blogger found her address book exposed to her abusive ex-boyfriend, as the New York Times reported. Furthermore, as the Times went on to explain, dissidents under authoritarian regimes have reason to fear their contacts being made available to any casual governmental monitor.

As Ars Technica commented, these problems arose directly from Google’s attempt to use information given by its users in a private context (e-mail) by linking it to a public service. Furthermore, Google also took public information (public Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader shared items) and connected it to users’ Buzz account. This made it likelier that the users’ Buzz contacts would see the albums or Reader items. Google defended this by saying the information was public anyway, but linking users’ public information to their social networking account still has consequences. Information that is not hidden behind a password may still be unknown to a user’s personal acquaintances, and the user may wish to keep it that way.  While technically Google “it was public already” defense may have some legal merit, it did not incur any good will from its users by failing to seek their permission on this issue.

Google’s response

Google has apologized and begun rolling back some of Buzz’s problematic features. Google got rid of the automatic creation of a Buzz contact list from users’ email accounts, made it easier to disable Buzz, and no longer automatically connects public Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader shared items to Buzz accounts. The response was both rapid and dramatic, which is a point in Google’s favor in the eyes of many complainants. However, because of the circumstances that made such a response necessary, Google’s critics are still not entirely satisfied.  

The legal repercussions

Google may have to face a class-action suit in federal court in San Jose, CA, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Plaintiff Eva Hibnick of Florida is seeking to file the suit on behalf of all Gmail users whose account information was automatically linked to Buzz. The complaint accuses Google of unlawfully sharing personal information without permission, as ABC explains. The plaintiff seeks injunctive relief from similar actions in the future, as well as unspecified monetary damages.

Furthermore, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) calls Google’s response inadequate, reports Digital Media Wire. EPIC argues that Google Buzz should be opt-in, rather than opt-out. Google’s most recent changes have made it much easier for users to opt out of Buzz, but they still must opt out. Additionally, EPIC argues that Buzz should not have access to Gmail address books. EPIC has also filed a request with the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google Buzz.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also sharply criticized Google Buzz. The EFF’s arguments go beyond the immediate impact of the Buzz features and suggest that courts should be more skeptical of the Google Books settlement. As the EFF points out, a BBC report suggests that Google did not properly test Buzz before launching it. As Google tries to finalize its Books settlement, as the BBC reports, the problematic Buzz launch suggests Google might use Books information for its own competitive advantage in the same way it used Gmail information. The EFF argues that the Buzz incident highlights the need for Google to make “firm enforceable commitments to protecting user privacy.”

The future

Buzz might be doing better than one might anticipate given the uproar. The New York Times reports that Google claims “tens of millions of people” tried Buzz in the first two days after its launch. Google competitors Microsoft (as MediaBistro reports) and Yahoo, meanwhile, are naturally pooh-poohing Buzz’s prospects. But one thing is clear. Google might get away with asking for forgiveness rather than permission while dealing with Google Books and other copyright law issues, but taking that cavalier approach to personal information is a different matter, even in an age of decreasing privacy. Google may be dealing with both the public relations fallout and the legal consequences of the Buzz launch for a long time.