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Privacy police take aim at social media giants

The Google logo is seen on the top of its China headquarters building behind a road surveillance camera in Beijing.


The world's leading privacy regulators are joining forces to combat what they say is persistent and "willful" disregard by Internet giants such as Google Inc. of the rights of web users to protect their personal information.

Senior officials from 10 international privacy regulators, including Canada, told a Washington press conference that they have agreed to jointly investigate, audit and penalize companies that violate privacy laws across national borders.

The session followed the release of a public letter to Google that sharply criticized the California company for exposing the contacts of millions of its users of its e-mail service, called Gmail, when it rolled out its Google Buzz social networking application in February.

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By flexing their muscle, the regulators are seeking to corral rapidly-growing web giants, including Google and Facebook, that now house billions of gigabytes of information about users age, race, location and web-viewing habits.

To the companies, these rich stores of data represent a motherlode of demographic information that appeals to advertisers seeking a clearer picture of potential customers. To regulators, the data represent a potential minefield of legal issues because of the speed with which web giants can expose personal information.

"We are trying to warn the companies all over the world that there are privacy principles to obey," said Jacob Kohnstamm, director of the Dutch Data Protection Authority.

If companies don't comply, he said, regulators would take a number of steps, including "getting the public against the product," signalling that privacy officials may resort to public relations campaigns, rather than fines or reprimands, to compel companies.

The unprecedented collaboration of international privacy cops was sparked by Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, whose early privacy activism has prompted web giants such as Facebook to tighten customer protection. In an interview, Ms. Stoddart said she proposed joining forces with her global counterparts at an OECD meeting in March, one month after Google Buzz was introduced.

"We were shocked. How could this thing be? How could you take people's private correspondence and then basically reveal to all the other people who you were most corresponding with?" she said.

"We are only asking online companies to do what happens in the bricks and mortar world and that is to respect the laws of the countries where they bring their product," Ms. Stoddart said.

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Even though Ms. Stoddart and her counterparts said their concern extends to myriad Internet firms, they focused on Google as a proxy for those firms, singling out the world's most popular search engine.

Google's response indicated the company had no immediate plans to overhaul its privacy policies.

"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 company said in a statement.

"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."

Google appears to have sped up the launch of that transparency tool, making it public Tuesday just hours after the privacy officials' critical letter. The tool turned out to be a list of all the times that government bodies have asked Google for users' data - an indirect way for the company to point out that many of its privacy breaches come at the request of the governments now seeking to scrutinize them more closely.

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