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Google slapped with class-action lawsuit over Buzz

Florida woman contends that Buzz violates Gmail user privacy rights, federal laws

February 18, 2010 02:57 PM ET

Computerworld - A Florida woman yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit against Google Inc., charging that the new Buzz social networking tool set violates the privacy rights of users.

Eva Hibnick, a resident of Sarasota County, Fla., filed the suit in a San Jose, Calif., federal court on behalf of herself and the approximately 31 million U.S. users of Google's popular Gmail e-mail service. The lawsuit alleges that Google violated federal privacy and computer fraud laws by adding Buzz to the Gmail service last week.

According to the class action complaint, "Google Buzz made private data belonging to Gmail users publicly available without the users' knowledge or authorization. Google has publicly admitted that its Buzz program presents privacy concerns, and Google has made several waves of modifications to the program. However, Google's modifications do not go far enough to address the problem. Furthermore, Google's actions have already caused damage because the Buzz program disclosed private user information the moment Google launched the service. The bell of breached privacy cannot be un-rung."

Hibnick is seeking unspecified damages and is asking the court to prevent Google from offering Buzz without "appropriate safeguards, default provisions and opt-in mechanisms."

In an e-mail to Computerworld, Google said it has not yet been served with the lawsuit and would not comment until the complaint has been received and reviewed.

Google last week threw its hat into the social networking ring by adding new Gmail features designed to make the e-mail service a social networking hub. Google Buzz is the company's attempt to make the flood of social posts, pictures and video easier to weed through, and to make it easier to find important information.

Users started expressing concerns about the complexity of the privacy setting in Buzz almost immediately after its Feb. 9 launch.

In response, Google said it had tweaked the technology to address early privacy concerns just two days after the launch of Buzz. The company noted in a blog post that the modifications should make it easier for users to block access to their pages and also make it easier to find two different privacy features.

In her lawsuit, Hibnick called Google's tweaks to Buzz too little and too late.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said that if nothing else, the lawsuit should serve as an eye opener for Google executives.

"This should definitely be a wake-up call for them to go over Buzz with a magnifying glass and a fine-toothed comb, looking for any other potential problems and try to fix them proactively," Olds said. "Actually, the lawsuit doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, I'm a little surprised that there's only one so far. Given our litigious society, plus Google's recent missteps in terms of privacy, I wouldn't be surprised if state and/or federal regulators got into the act, too. Google did make some serious blunders with Buzz. Plus they aren't the underdog anymore. Their halo is getting a bit tarnished in some ways."

Olds added that he doesn't foresee the lawsuit having a major financial impact on Google but it should bring more scrutiny down on the company and its privacy moves and policies.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter@sgaudin, send e-mail to sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS.

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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