Google, through its plan to link Gmail addresses to its Google+ social network, is violating a privacy agreement the company made with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, a longtime critic of the company's privacy practices said in a complaint to the agency.
Google+ also has a "flagrant and fundamental privacy design flaw" because it allows any user to add other users to his circles without their permission, frequent Google critic Consumer Watchdog said in the complaint.
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"A user can be forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated," wrote John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director. "People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated. Operating a social network as Google is doing in a blatant attempt to build traffic and the user base is an unfair business practice."
Compounding the problem is Google's plan, announced earlier this month, to merge Google+ and Gmail contact lists, Consumer Watchdog said. The change will allow a Gmail user to send an unsolicited email message to another user without knowing the second person's Gmail address, by adding the intended recipient to his Google+ circles.
That merger of Google+ and Gmail accounts violates a March 2011 privacy settlement between Google and the FTC over Google Buzz, the company's failed first social networking experiment, Consumer Watchdog alleged.
The new contact-sharing feature allows users to connect with people they know, a Google spokeswoman said. "Users decide who can contact them with a new Gmail setting," she said in an email. "No personal information is shared with third parties unless a user explicitly takes action to do so. A user's email address is only shared with someone if they choose to send that individual an email or reply to an email that was sent to them."
The Google plan to merge the contact lists makes it easier to send unsolicited email than Google+ competitor Facebook does, Simpson said in an email.
Facebook's messaging feature is "designed for communication on the Facebook platform," he said. "Google+ will deliver right into Gmail's inbox, which many people use as a their primary account."
The merger of the contact lists violates a provision in the Buzz settlement that requires Google to obtain users' consent before sharing their information with third parties, Simpson alleged. The plan "provides a material change in the way data is shared and used," he said. "Google has announced the plan, but has offered only the option to opt out."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.