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Data watchdogs apply pressure over Google's privacy record

LONDON - Data watchdogs from the UK and nine other countries have criticised Google's disregard for privacy in its Buzz and Street View services and called on the company to incorporate "mimimum" principles in future products.

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The organisations have collectively written to Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt, requesting a response from the company.

The UK's Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, who was recently given the power to levy bigger fines on organisations breaching data protection laws, is among the ten signatories.

They also include Canada's privacy commissioner, which last July targeted Facebook, and watchdogs from France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain.

The letter outlines concerns that "the privacy rights of the world's citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications".

It singles out the company's rollout of its Buzz social networking application for causing "serious privacy problems".

"In essence, you took Google Mail (Gmail), a private, one-to-one web-based e-mail service, and converted it into a social networking service ... without adequately informing Gmail users about how this new service would work or providing sufficient information to permit informed consent decisions. This violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information."

The letter offers praise for the way Google quickly reacted to the storm of criticism from users, but states it was "unacceptable" to launch "with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise".

It passes a similar comment on Google Street View, before calling on Google to set an example to others by incorporating the following fundamental privacy principles in new online services:

-    collecting and processing only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to achieve the identified purpose of the product or service

-    providing clear and unambiguous information about how personal information will be used to allow users to provide informed consent

-    creating privacy-protective default settings

-    ensuring that privacy control settings are prominent and easy to use

-    ensuring that all personal data is adequately protected, nad

-    giving people simple procedures for deleting their accounts and honouring their requests in a timely way

A Google spokeswoman confirmed the company has received the letter but refused to comment on whether Schmidt had read it or if he had replied.

The spokeswoman provided the following statement: "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 Dashboard, the ads preferences manager and our data liberation initiative are all good examples of such initiatives.

"Of course we do not get everything 100% 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."

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