Buzz allows users to share updates, comments, photos, videos and other information through posts or “buzzes” made either to individuals or groups of users. Google used the information of consumers who signed up for Gmail to populate Buzz without their consent, which, in many instances, resulted in certain previously private information being made public.
The FTC claimed, among other things, that Google violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by falsely representing to users signing up for Gmail that it would use their information only for the purpose of providing them with Web-based E-mail when in fact it was being used for Buzz, and that Google falsely represented to consumers that it would seek their consent before using their information for a purpose other than that for which it was collected. The FTC further claimed that Google deceived consumers about their ability to decline enrollment in certain features of Buzz, and that Google failed to disclose adequately that certain consumer information would become public by default through the Buzz service.
In March, Google agreed to settle the FTC’s charges. The settlement agreement bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations similar to those in this case, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years – among other things. The settlement agreement contains numerous requirements designed to prevent Google from engaging in the future in practices similar to those alleged in the complaint with respect to all Google products and services.
The enforcement action against Google demonstrates that the FTC will prosecute an advertiser that makes overly broad privacy representations and then fails to abide by them. Advertisers must ensure that their business practices and operations comport with their stated policies. An advertiser needs to understand precisely what information it receives from customers and adequately disclose how it intends to use such customer information.