Consumer group files FTC complaint against Google

From Google's privacy policy change to Google overriding browser default settings, the FTC is getting an earful from privacy groups and lawmakers.

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming that Google's move to consolidate its dozens of privacy policies violates an agreement the company reached with the FTC to settle privacy complaints about the now defunct Google Buzz.

The complaint -- similar to complaints brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the World Privacy Forum and Consumer Watchdog -- alleges that Google is misleading users about the "real reasons" for the privacy policy change, which are due to take effect March 1. In addition, the planned policy changes violate the FTC-Google consent decree by failing to get user consent before sharing information.

The CDD says Google has failed to inform users that its advertising and marketing plans are the "driving force" behind the policy change and neglects to tell users how data collection, profiling and targeting practices could violate their privacy. Google maintains that integrating all of its disparate privacy policies will make it simpler for users to understand and easily allow it to combine personal information of users across multiple products and services for a better user experience.

However, the CDD complaint alleges that the move is really designed to improve advertising.

"In particular, Google fails to inform its users that the new privacy regime is based on its own business imperatives: to address competition from Facebook' to grow its capacity to finely profile and target through audience buying; to collect, integrate, and utilize a user's information in order to expand its social media, social search, and mobile marketing activities ... and generally to expand its DoubleClick (advertising) operations," the complaint says.

A Google spokesman provided this statement when asked for comment: "Our updated Privacy Policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users. We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history, and we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services services. Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

EPIC sued the FTC two weeks ago in an attempt to force it to prevent Google from implementing its privacy policy changes. The suit alleges that the changes will make it possible for advertisers to gain access to personal information of Google users which was previously unavailable to them. Google has denied the charges.

Late on Friday, the FTC issued its response to the EPIC complaint in a federal court in Washington, D.C., saying: "We are asking the Court to dismiss the case because parties such as EPIC are barred by law from interfering with the proper investigation and enforcement of FTC orders."

The FTC is hearing from a number of people about Google these days. Late last week Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) sent a letter to the FTC asking the agency to investigate whether Google had violated the Buzz-related settlement by overriding cookie settings in Apple's Safari browser that were designed to block tracking of users as they bounce from site to site.

Google was blasted last week when The Wall Street Journal reported that the company was taking advantage of an exemption in Safari in order to add Google "+1" buttons on ads and other content. Microsoft also says Google was bypassing similar default privacy settings in Internet Explorer too.

 

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