Ten nations call on Google to better defend privacy

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The Independent Online

Officials from 10 nations have banded together to demand that Internet giant Google make greater efforts to defend people's privacy.

"While we hear corporations such as Google pay lip service to privacy, we don't always see this reflected in the launch of new products," Canada's privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said Tuesday.

She said an "unprecedented" collaboration of countries representing a total of 375 million people were "speaking with a common voice" to remind Internet firms to obey each nation's privacy laws.

Stoddart was among the signatories of a joint letter to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt about the company's privacy practices, particularly in regard to its freshly-launched Buzz social network.

The letter was also signed by data protection officials from Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain.

"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 stated.

"We were disturbed by your recent roll-out of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws."

Buzz was added in February as a feature on Google's Gmail, which reportedly has 146 million users worldwide.

Some Gmail users complained that they were automatically assigned without notice or consent a network of "followers" based on those with whom they communicated with the most using Google's email and online chat services.

The list of "followers" was also included in a widely available online profile.

Google has issued a public apology and introduced changes to address the widespread criticism.

"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 Google spokesman said in an email response to an AFP inquiry.

"Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right - that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received."

Google said it has repeatedly discussed Buzz privacy concerns publicly and had nothing to add with regard to the letter to Schmidt.

"Instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about," the spokesman added.

Google on Tuesday launched a Government Requests website detailing how often countries around the world ask the Internet search giant to hand over user data or censor information.

Countries that signed onto the letter to Schmidt were among those listed as requesting user data from Google.

Buzz privacy problems at launch should have been "readily apparent" to Google, according to the letter.

Google has also seen its online map Street View feature criticized for threatening the privacy of people caught in photos provided as part of a service that provides users glimpses of locations.

The letter urges Google to set a worthy privacy example for other online firms.

"Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world," the letter stated.

Google is the second online company to be investigated by Canada's privacy czar.

Last year, Facebook agreed to better secure the privacy of its users worldwide after Canada probed its policy of holding onto personal information from deactivated accounts in violation of Canadian law.

Facebook was also accused of not adequately restricting access that outside software developers have to personal information people put on profile pages.

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