The Wall Street Journal is reporting that outgoing FTC Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour criticized technology companies for publicly exposing consumer data, particularly during the rollout of new products. Ms. Harbour lamented that companies do not take consumer privacy seriously. She singled out the launch of Google Buzz as irresponsible conduct by “one of the greatest technology leaders of our time.” Consumer advocates raised alarm when Google Buzz initially established Google Gmail users’ social network connections automatically based on the users’ email and chat contacts, and made that list public by default. Ms. Harbour reiterated the advocates’ sentiment by stating that, from the time the product launched, consumers rather than Google should have decided whether or not to subscribe to the features that could expose their contact data. Soon after the launch, Google changed the defaults to allow users more control. Google put forth a conciliatory message, stating that user transparency and control are top priorities for the company and that Google is continuing to improve Buzz based on the feedback the company receives.
Ms. Harbour concluded that privacy is a fundamental right that consumers expect businesses to respect regardless of advances in technology. She expects the FTC to continue to evaluate consumers’ preferences and, armed with these insights, “shape the conversation about the intrinsic value of privacy.” Ms. Harbour also expects the FTC to step in to protect consumers where the Commission believes companies have violated privacy promises.
While Ms. Harbour noted that she was expressing her own views rather than the FTC’s, recent commissioner appointments suggest that the FTC will continue to be increasingly active in privacy enforcement. Specifically, one of the newly appointed commissioners, Julie Brill, has spearheaded litigation and legislative efforts in a wide variety of areas affecting consumers, including privacy, in her roles as Assistant Attorney General for Consumer Protection and Antitrust for the State of Vermont and Deputy Attorney General for Consumer Protection and Antitrust for the State of North Carolina. Ms. Brill also has served as Chair of the Committee on Privacy for the National Association of Attorneys General.