Google’s Ears Still Ringing Over Buzz Brouhaha

Google has become the target of another lawsuit alleging privacy violations in connection with the February rollout of Buzz, its social networking application.

The suit, Feldman v. Google, was filed in a federal court in San Jose, Calif., by New York resident Barry Feldman, who is seeking class action status.

Google is facing at least two other suits based on similar allegations. Eva Hibnick, a Florida resident, previously filed a complaint in the San Jose federal court, seeking class action status. Hibnick argues that Buzz violated users’ privacy as well as several laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Following closely after Hibnick’s filing was a suit brought by Cranston, R.I., resident Adranik Souvalian in the federal district court in Rhode Island.

A common thread in these complaints is that Google automatically activated a feature called “auto-following,” which selected contacts from users’ Gmail address lists to create both lists for users to follow and lists of followers — without first seeking permission.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

It is unlikely these cases will gain much traction, commented Christopher M. Collins, an attorney with Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian.

“Generally, I think these people believe what Google did with Buzz was wrong and wanted to make a point, and probably a little money as well,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Clearly Buzz, in its very first iteration, hit a nerve with a lot of people, Collins acknowledged.

“I understand people didn’t like that their email accounts were shown to others in their network without their permission,” he said, but whether that reaches the threshold of a legal violation is debatable.

Essentially, Google’s original privacy settings did allow consumers to opt-out once they saw the network that Buzz established for them, which should satisfy relevant legal standards, said Collins.

That aside, establishing that Buzz caused injury to plaintiffs would be an uphill battle. An “ideal” plaintiff — that is, someone who could show clear damages — is not necessarily someone who would want to bring a suit, Collins noted.

After its rollout, Harriet Jacobs blogged that Goggle Buzz had included an abusive ex-husband in her network — which had been set up automatically, without her input — giving him information about her current life. The blog was cited by several media outlets as an example of the damage Buzz had caused.

Jacobs might have been a “good” candidate, Collins said.

Another possible good candidate might be a person who lost his job after colleagues in his workplace discovered communications regarding his patronage of establishments providing adult merchandise or services, he suggested.

“These, though, are people that are not likely to want further exposure that a suit would bring,” noted Collins, “either because of the embarrassment, or — in the case of that woman — because she didn’t want to make even more information about herself public.”

The bottom line: What happened with Buzz was a case of Google making a serious misfire with a new product — one that it quickly corrected, albeit perhaps not as effectively as some critics would have liked it to.

Message Received

Shortly after Buzz was released, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the FTC on the grounds that the new service violated federal consumer protection law. This action followed a general outcry over Buzz’s automatic network-building activities. Most consumers, based on comments on Google’s blog post introducing Buzz, hated the new service.

EPIC urged the trade commission to require that Google make the Buzz service fully opt-in.

Google, for its part, didn’t need further prompting. It quickly made tweaks to Buzz’s privacy settings, changing the auto-follow feature to auto-suggest. It recently made another change, requiring users with Buzz accounts established prior to mid-February to confirm their key Buzz settings.

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