Google Buzz Privacy Issues

( New Zealand Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff announced the release today of a joint letter to Google from a group of international data protection and privacy regulators, including New Zealand.

“I congratulate the Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart for leading this international response to an action by a powerful global corporation, which affected internet users in New Zealand and worldwide,” Marie Shroff said.

“The launch of Google Buzz was commercial experimentation on New Zealanders and other internet users, involving the release of significant personal information. We think people deserve better.”

“As part of an unprecedented collaboration, data protection authorities representing over 375 million people in 10 countries are speaking with a common voice to remind these organisations that they must comply with the privacy laws of each country where they roll out products and services.”

The Commissioners’ letter to Google was signed by the heads of data protection authorities in Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Google mail or Gmail had been a private, one to one, web-based email service but was abruptly melded with a new social networking service. Google automatically assigned users a network of “followers” from among people with whom they corresponded most frequently on Gmail. Users were not adequately informed about how this new service would work or provided with sufficient information to allow informed consent. These action violated the fundamental, globally accepted principle that people should be able to control the use of their personal information.

Google users protested – understandably concerned that their personal information was being disclosed. Google apologised and quickly introduced changes to address the widespread criticism.

“This collective international action by regulators sets a precedent for a new approach suited to the global nature of the digital environment,” Marie Shroff said. “Corporations such as Google themselves act globally and affect us all. New Zealanders can only be protected if global solutions are found. New Zealand is inevitably a small player in global e-commerce with limited influence on its own. We support moves to act collectively and effectively.”

The very recent establishment of the Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN) is another sign that the time has come for collective global action to protect the “digital citizens” of the world. GPEN will help data protection and privacy authorities world-wide to work with each other to defend people’s right to protection of their personal information wherever in the world a breach or harm may occur. New Zealand is a founding member of GPEN.

The New Zealand Privacy Commissioner has been working for some time to help build global cooperation in privacy enforcement across borders. This work is being done in many arenas including APEC, OECD, ISO and the Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities forum. “We were not satisfied with the launch of Google Buzz. But I also acknowledge that major industry players are aware of the need for global protection for personal information in the digital world. They support and join in many of the international initiatives under way to protect digital citizens.”

The Commissioners’ joint letter makes specific recommendations for enhancing privacy protections and asks Google to explain how it will comply with national privacy laws in the future.

Media Release 20 April 2010 from New Zealand Privacy Commission.
Contact Katrine Evans 021 509735