Google Buzz Draws Class-Action Suit From Harvard Student

Lawsuit filed over new social networking service, raising privacy issue.

February 18, 2010, 12:16 PM

Feb. 18, 2010— -- Love it or loathe it, Google Buzz has dominated tech headlines since its launch last week.

The latest product unveiled by the Mountain View tech giant, Google Buzz, is a social networking service that plugs right into a Gmail user's e-mail account.

Like Facebook or Twitter, the new tool lets users post status updates, YouTube videos and photos, connecting users in an ongoing online conversation.

While some people have hailed Google Buzz as a potential "Facebook killer," others have lambasted the service for publicizing users' private information.

One law school student decided this week to take the Google Buzz backlash to a whole new level.

Law firms in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Wednesday filed a class-action complaint in San Jose, Calif., federal court against Google Buzz on behalf of Eva Hibnick, a 24-year-old Harvard Law School student.

The complaint alleges that Google Buzz, which automatically opted-in all Gmail users upon its launch, unlawfully shared personal data without users' permission. The document cites the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Federal Stored Communications Act and California common and statutory law.

"I feel like they did something wrong," said Hibnick, an active Gmail user and second-year law student. "They opted me into this social network and I didn't want it."

Hibnick said she typically uses Gmail about two to three times a day, and when she signed in to the service Feb. 9 (the day of Google Buzz's launch), she didn't realize at first that she had been automatically signed up for the new social network.

When she realized later, she said she was concerned that Google Buzz had publicly disclosed her personal relationships.

Student: Google Buzz Revealed Personal Contacts

When the service first launched, it set users up to automatically "follow" (or receive status updates from) the people they most e-mailed or chatted with, leading many users to worry that their contacts were public to anyone on the Web.

Hibnick said that some of the people Google had selected to follow her were people she hadn't spoken to in months.

Hibnick said she mentioned her frustrations to a classmate, who happened to be a research assistant for a Harvard professor who specializes in civil procedure and class-action law.

When he agreed that Google Buzz could indeed constitute a privacy breach, he put them in touch with one of the attorneys now representing Hibnick.

"I feel really deeply about this issue and that's why I decided to step forward," Hibnick said.

Hibnick is bringing the complaint on behalf of all Gmail users whose accounts were linked to Google Buzz (there were 31.2 million users as of January, according to the filing) and is seeking injunctions to prevent the company from acting similarly in the future, as well as monetary relief.

One of her attorneys, Gary E. Mason of Washington, D.C.-based Mason Law Firm LLP, said, "It's not so much that we're expecting to get millions of people hundreds of dollars. What we'd like to see as result is a commitment from Google that they're not going to do this again the next time they launch a product."

Although Google has apologized for Buzz's flaws and has addressed some of the issues (for example, they abandoned the auto-follow model and now recommend people to follow), Mason contends the company's changes are insufficient.

The program remains an opt-out program, which, he said, he thinks is "an unfair and generally deceptive practice." He also said that the company can't un-do their initial failings.

"We take issue with the way it was launched," he said. "It was a violation originally. … This is not the kind of behavior that people expect from electronic media and that's why these laws are in place."

Google: No Comment on Suit

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said, "We haven't yet been served, so we can't comment on the suit until we've had a chance to review it."

After the initial storm of gripes from Gmail users, Gmail and Google Buzz product manager Todd Jackson took to the official Gmail blog Saturday to apologize for the new service's flaws and announced a series of changes.

"We quickly realized that we didn't get everything quite right," he wrote. "We're very sorry for the concern we've caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We'll continue to do so."

In addition to eliminating the auto-follow model, Jackson said, Google Buzz no longer auto-connected other Google applications to the social network and could be disabled by accessing Gmail settings.

But the apology and changes didn't prevent privacy watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center from filing a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

In the complaint filed Tuesday, the center alleged that Google is "engaging in unfair and deceptive acts and practices" that violated user privacy expectations, contradicted Google's own privacy policy and may have violated federal wiretap laws.

Kimberly Nguyen, consumer privacy counsel for the center, said, "Our main concern is that Google should allow users to have meaningful control over their personal information and Google Buzz doesn't allow for that."

Gmail users expected an e-mail service from Google, she said, but when the company rolled out Google Buzz, users were involuntarily pulled into a social networking service for which they didn't sign up.

Although the company has changed several Google Buzz features, she said, it has not made one key change: Instead of offering Google Buzz to Gmail users and letting them choose to opt-in, Google automatically registered Gmail users with the service, only giving them the choice to opt-out.

"To make this opt-in versus opt-out is very important," she said. "The bottom line is users should have control over their information.

Although she hadn't read Hibnick's complaint, she said there could be some "real merit" to it.

"A lot of people were outraged when they first saw that their private e-mail contacts were being publicized to the world," she said.

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