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Privacy commissioner leads global group slamming Google


Canada's privacy commissioner has levelled a broadside at Google Inc., issuing an open letter to the company's CEO - co-signed by privacy heads from nine other countries - urging more protection of users' data.

"[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, penned by Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, states.

Ms. Stoddart and her colleagues take particular exception to Google's recent launch of a service called Buzz, which aimed to challenge Twitter's micro-blogging service and which Google embedded into its Gmail application. Many critics protested that Buzz gave away far too much personal information by default, without giving users proper guidance about what was going on. Google quickly changed Buzz's default settings to better protect privacy, but not before suffering a wave of bad publicity.

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"We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws," Ms. Stoddart's letter states. "Moreover, this was not the first time you have failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations when launching new services."

Google CEO Eric Schmidt received the letter on Monday, and it was released publicly Tuesday. According to people familiar with the matter, Google was not consulted specifically about the letter ahead of time. However the company talks to privacy officials frequently about general matters.

In addition to Canada, privacy commissioners from France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom signed the letter.

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Google issued a brief response Tuesday that showed no signs the company would be overhauling its policies as a result of the privacy officials' rebuke.

"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," Google officials said in a statement.

"Of course we do not get everything 100 per cent right-that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received. We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter-instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about."

Although Ms. Stoddart said the letter reflects the commissioners' more broad concerns with privacy policies at many large Internet companies, the focus is squarely on Google, which dominates the search market in Canada and many other countries.

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"We therefore call on you, like all organizations entrusted with people's personal information, to incorporate fundamental privacy principles directly into the design of new online services."

The commissioners will hold a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Washington D.C. to further explain their position.

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