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Google agrees to privacy settlement

Google has agreed to adopt a comprehensive privacy program to settle federal charges that it deceived users and violated its own privacy policy when it launched a social networking service called Buzz last year.

The search giant triggered a fierce user backlash when it integrated Buzz into its Gmail e-mail service in February 2010. The service automatically created public circles of friends for users based on their most frequent Gmail contacts. But many users complained that they didn't want all their e-mail contacts -- which could include ex-spouses, doctors, employers and recruiters -- to become part of a social network for anyone to see.

The settlement announced Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission requires Google to study both its existing services and any new services it launches to determine if they pose risks to user privacy -- and develop policies to address those risks if they do.

The settlement mandates independent audits to oversee and verify Google's privacy program every other year for the next 20 years. The settlement also requires Google to obtain user consent before sharing consumer information with third parties if it alters a service to use the data in a way that would violate its existing privacy policy.

The FTC charged that Google had violated its own privacy policy by taking personal information provided for Gmail and integrating it into Buzz without permission, even though it had promised to obtain consent before using information "in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected."

"When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement.

The FTC complaint outlined a number of problems with Buzz. Those included ineffective options to let users decline to participate in the service, confusing and hard-to-find controls to let users limit sharing of their e-mail contacts, and inadequate notice of exactly what the service did.

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