April 17, 2024

Google Introduces New Social Networking Tool, as It Settles Federal Privacy Charge

Google is taking another stab at social networking, even as it pays a price for social networking privacy blunders it has made in the past.

Google introduced its latest social tool Wednesday, the same day it settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges of deceptive privacy practices in its introduction last year of Buzz, the social networking tool in Gmail.

Under the settlement, Google agreed to start a privacy program and undergo privacy audits for 20 years; it faces $16,000 fines for future privacy misrepresentations. This is the first time the F.T.C. has charged a company with such violations, and the first time it has ordered a company to introduce a privacy program, the commission said.

The new social networking tool, +1, lets people annotate Google search results and ads so they can recommend Web pages to friends and acquaintances. It is the biggest feature yet in Google’s long-awaited social networking toolkit.

Both the introduction of +1 and the F.T.C. charges highlight two of Google’s biggest challenges: heightened competition from Facebook, and near-constant criticism from privacy advocates and policy makers over its practices.

As it tries to make its services more social, the company has come under intense scrutiny from people concerned about its widespread grasp of personal information. But at the same time, it is in the unusual position of racing to catch up with a rival, as Facebook captures more of Internet users’ time, information and advertising dollars.

Of particular concern to Google is the fact that many people now turn to Facebook with search queries, like seeking the best place to go on vacation, because they trust their friends’ advice more than that of an anonymous search engine.

In an interview about the new tool, Matt Cutts, a principal search engineer at Google who worked on +1, took great pains to emphasize that the company had learned from the privacy outcry after it introduced Buzz, which lets Gmail users share status updates, photos and videos. Its introduction in February 2010 unleashed a barrage of criticism from privacy advocates and everyday users because it automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their social network.

Mr. Cutts repeatedly stressed that anything people share with +1 is public.

“If you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling your friends and broadcasting this to the world, then of course you don’t have to click the +1 button,” he said. With +1, Google wants to personalize search results. People logged into their Google accounts will be able to click a +1 button next to search results to publicly recommend the pages. People perusing search results will see how many Google users recommended a page and see names and photos of people they know.

Google will find people that users know through Gmail and chat contacts, as well as people users follow on Google Reader or Buzz. Later it will include contacts from other social sites like Twitter and Flickr. But it will not include contacts from Facebook, because Facebook information is not publicly shared on the Web, Mr. Cutts said

People will also be able to recommend ads. And if someone recommends a search result that links to a hotel’s Web site and the hotel later advertises on Google, that person’s recommendation will appear with the ad.

Google’s +1 is remarkably similar to Facebook’s Like button, which lets people recommend Web sites and ads to their friends. Later, Web publishers will be able to include a +1 button on their pages, just as many include a Facebook Like button today.

But Mr. Cutts said it differed from the Facebook feature because “it’s useful right there when you’re searching but doesn’t crowd or muck up your activity stream where people might not want to see it.”

In bringing the charges against Google, the F.T.C. said the company violated its own privacy policy when it used the information from users’ Gmail accounts for Buzz without obtaining their permission. The settlement prohibits Google from making any similar privacy misrepresentations, and requires Google to provide users with the ability to opt in to any changes to existing products that involve collecting user information.

“This is a legal order and goes further than voluntary commitment,” said Jessica Rich, the deputy director of the F.T.C. Bureau of Consumer Protection in a news conference with reporters Wednesday.

Google has apologized for the Buzz debacle before — and did again on Wednesday — but said the rules mandated by the F.T.C. would not change the way it operates.

“We don’t see this as being a significant change in how we run our business because this is the standard we hold ourselves to already,” said Jill Hazelbaker, a Google spokeswoman.

The F.T.C. said it expects the settlement to have broad consequences for the Web industry.

“We think that many of the provisions in this order are good practices that we would expect to see widely followed throughout the industry,” Ms. Rich said. “The difference is Google would be subject to civil penalties if they violated it.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ba1aa219a86f6e8575f22709594890cd

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