Consumer Watchdog, the non-profit group that might more accurately be called “Google Watchdog,” has filed a complaint with the FTC over Google’s recent rollout of a feature that lets Gmail users contact Google+ users without knowing the recipient’s email address.
Google launched the “Send to Anyone on Google+” feature earlier this month, which lets anyone with a Gmail and Google+ account send messages to anyone else with Gmail and Google+ accounts. Google made the feature opt-out, meaning users that didn’t want to potentially get messages from strangers via Gmail/Google+ had to turn it off in their Gmail settings.
In its complaint this week (PDF version), Consumer Watchdog calls the feature “an obvious invasion of a person’s privacy and a delight for potential stalkers.” The organization also says that it violates the terms of the 2010 FTC/Google settlement over Google Buzz, Google’s now-defunct social service.
It is a material change from past information and data sharing practices on Google+ and Gmail. According to Section II (B) of the “Buzz” Consent Agreement, Google must “Obtain express affirmative consent from the user to such sharing.” The Gmail/Google+ link as announced on Jan. 9 does not provide for affirmative consent when it is an opt-out choice rather than an opt-in decision. Perhaps a few people would like to receive messages from total strangers. That would be an allowable opt-in choice. The current plan violates the Buzz agreement.
Consumer Watchdog is basically asking the FTC to tell Google that the feature should be opt-in, not opt-out, in order to conform to the Buzz settlement.
The FTC complaint also goes on at length about Google+ violating people’s privacy because a user can be added to someone else’s circles without permission … which is exactly how following someone on Twitter works. This part of Consumer Watchdog’s complaint also incorrectly says that Facebook doesn’t associate two individuals without permission, ignoring the fact that you can also “Follow” people on Facebook without permission, and that simply sending a friend request makes a connection between two people before the friend request is accepted or rejected.