Watchdog: Google experimented on New Zealanders

UPDATE: Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for Google's Australia-New Zealand operation, has responded:

UPDATE: Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for Google's Australia-New Zealand operation, has responded:

“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. The Google Dashboard and our data liberation project are good examples of such initiatives. We don't get everything 100% right - that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received.

“We're in regular contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, and we're always willing to discuss their feedback and that of New Zealanders because we take privacy very seriously.”

Google also reiterated its Privacy Principles statement, online at the company's NZ blog here.


New Zealand privacy commissioner Marie Shroff has signed a joint letter to Google from regulators in 10 countries.

"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," Ms 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."

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 - collectively representing 375 million people.

Google: US regulators the most active
The Wall Street Journal reported today that it approached Google for comment on the letter, but was told by a rep: "We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to the letter."

The search giant has, however, launched a website that lists the number of requests for information it has received from various governments around the world in the six months to December.

New Zealand is one of many countries listed as "<10".

The United States is far and away in the lead on 123.

The buzz about Buzz
Google's Gmail had been a private, one to one, web-based email service but earlier thsi year was abruptly melded with a new social networking service called Buzz, by the Privacy Commissioner's characterisation.

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, said Ms Shroff.

"These actiosn 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 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.