Outgoing FTC commissioner dings Google, Internet companies on privacy


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Actor Marlon Brando once said: “Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”

He probably would not have appreciated how the Internet is peeling away the last vestiges of privacy.


And neither apparently does outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour, who said Wednesday that Google, Facebook and other major U.S. Internet companies need to better protect the privacy of their users or face stiff penalties.

The views she expressed were her own, and not those of the FTC, she said.

‘I am especially concerned that technology companies are learning harmful lessons from each other’s attempts to push the privacy envelope,’ Harbour said during an FTC privacy workshop, according to PC World and other accounts. ‘Even the most respected and popular online companies, the ones who claim to respect privacy, continue to launch products where the guiding privacy policy seems to be, ‘Throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.’’

Harbour, who is leaving the FTC next month, says she advocates “intolerance” toward companies that push the privacy envelope only to backtrack when consumers protest that their data has been publicly exposed.

Exhibit A: Google’s February launch of social networking tool Buzz inside of millions of Gmail accounts, which prompted a flurry of privacy complaints. Harbour accused Google of “irresponsible conduct” and questioned why the technology leader had not learned from past product launches that sparked controversy.

She also cited a comment from Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt during an interview with CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

‘Google consistently tells the public to ‘just trust us,’’ she said. ‘But based on my observations, I do not believe consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz.’


“Unlike a lot of tech products, consumer privacy cannot be run in beta,” she said.

Google spokesman Brian Richardson said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal that the company made changes to Buzz’s privacy settings within 48 hours. ‘When we realized that we had unintentionally made users unhappy, we worked quickly to make immediate changes,” he said.

-- Jessica Guynn