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Google Scolded By Privacy Officials

Buzz, the company's social networking arm for Gmail, continues to elicit criticism
Data protection officials from 10 countries on Tuesday chastised Google CEO Eric Schmidt in an open letter for his company's handling of the launch of Google Buzz, asking the company to commit to building greater privacy protections into its future services.

The letter was sent by Jennifer Stoddart, privacy commissioner of Canada, and signed by her counterparts in France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

"[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," the letter states. "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."

The letter also notes that Google has a history of privacy problems with its services, particularly Google Maps Street View, which has hit roadblocks -- both literally and figuratively -- as it has been deployed around the world.

Google Buzz, which launched in February, was an attempt to hasten the process of creating a social network by designating Gmail users' contacts as "followers" -- people who have subscribed to receive updates on the followed person's online activities. But the plan, at least partially a reflection of Google's desire to catch up with the phenomenal growth of Facebook, backfired by exposing relationships that users expected would remain private.

Pilloried by irate users, Google apologized and made some changes to the service. Earlier this month, the company attempted to start over again by asking users to reconfirm their Buzz settings to ensure users hadn't opted in by mistake.

The letter effectively condemns Google's practice of launching beta software. "Launching a product in 'beta' form is not a substitute for ensuring that new services comply with fair information principles before they are introduced," the letter states. "...Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world."

For its part, Google maintains that its respect for user privacy remains strong.

"We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect, and how we use it, as well as to build meaningful controls into our products," a company spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "Google Dashboard, the Ads Preferences Manager and our data liberation initiative are all good examples of such initiatives. Of course we do not get everything 100% right -- that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received."

The statement continues, "We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter -- instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about."

Google's spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for information about its upcoming "new transparency tool."

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