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3/8/2010
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Google Buzz Stung By Lawsuit

The company broke privacy and data protection laws, the complaint alleges.

Google last week was sued in Rhode Island for allegedly violating data privacy laws when it launched its Buzz social networking service in February.

The plaintiff, Gmail user Andranik Souvalian of Cranston, Rhode Island, claims that, "Google intentionally exceeded its authorization to access and control confidential and private information" in violation of the Stored Communications Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Souvalian, a product administrator at an insurance company, is a former IT manager and senior systems engineer in the Navy.

Attorney Peter N. Wasylyk declined to discuss specific harms to his client. That information is likely to emerge if the case goes to trial.

The lawsuit, he said, raises "a very important issue with respect to individuals' privacy rights and their right to be alerted when their privacy is not being honored online."

A Google spokesperson said he couldn't comment because the company hasn't yet been served with the complaint.

The complaint states, "Google, through its Buzz social networking tool, has unlawfully disclosed its customers' private communications and records, including but not limited to, the automatic and unauthorized importing of its customers' private e-mail contacts into the Buzz social network. Buzz has raised privacy concerns including, but not limited to automatic importing of private contacts and showing them to friends and importing without authorization the customers' private photos onto the Buzz social network."

Following the launch of Buzz, Google twice changed the way the service worked to address widespread privacy concerns.

In addition to apologizing to users, Google responded to complaints by making the option to not display follower information on public profiles more visible and by making it possible to block followers who have not created a Google Profile. It subsequently switched from automatically setting up followers to providing a checked list of suggested followers that the user can approve, or alter prior to approval.

The company nonetheless had to explain its actions to Canada's Privacy Commissioner. And several days after Buzz launched, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about Buzz.

Last week, a day before Souvalian's lawsuit was filed, EPIC filed an amendment to its FTC complaint. The amendment argues that Google violated its Gmail Privacy Policy by using Gmail users' contact lists and related data for a separate, unrelated service, Buzz.

EPIC did so in response to a letter it received from the FTC late last month.

The letter acknowledged that the privacy organization's complaint "raises interesting issues that relate to consumer expectations about the collection and use of their data." It also said that the agency could neither confirm nor deny whether it is pursuing an investigation into the issues raised by the complaint.

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