Senator to FTC: Does Google ad change break privacy deal?

Sen. Edward Markey sends a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking whether Google's upcoming changes to its Terms of Service violate a 2011 privacy settlement over its scrapped Buzz service.

An example of how a user's Google Profile photo, and his or her endorsement, might be placed alongside a product listing. Google

Sen. Edward Markey sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Saturday asking if Google's upcoming change to its Terms of Service -- which means people with Google Profiles may see their names and photos used in Google ads, reviews, and elsewhere -- violates the company's 2011 privacy settlement with the FTC over its now-defunct Buzz service.

"This shift in Google's policy raises a number of important questions about whether Google is altering its privacy policy in a manner inconsistent with its consent agreement with the Commission and, if the changes go into effect, the degree to which users' identities, words, and opinions could be shared across the Web," Markey (D-Mass.) writes.

Google revealed changes to its Terms of Service on Friday . The most important one is that Google clarified how your profile name and photo might appear in "Google products," including display ads, under a program called Shared Endorsements. In an announcement Friday, Google said the following:

We want to give you -- and your friends and connections -- the most useful information. Recommendations from people you know can really help. So your friends, family, and others may see your Profile name and photo, and content like the reviews you share or the ads you +1'd. This only happens when you take an action (things like +1'ing, commenting, or following) -- and the only people who see it are the people you've chosen to share that content with. On Google, you're in control of what you share. This update to our Terms of Service doesn't change in any way who you've shared things with in the past or your ability to control who you want to share things with in the future.

Google also reminded its customers that they can opt out of appearing in Google ads from its Shared Endorsements settings. Somewhat confusingly, though, opting out of having your likeness and endorsement used in display ads will not affect having them used on Google Play. "This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn't change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play," Google explained in the TOS changes.

The changes are set to go into effect November 11.

Referring to the 2011 settlement over Buzz, a now-shuttered precursor to social network Google+, Markey writes:

In addition to being an opt-out mechanism, Google's announced privacy changes come over two years after the company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. In that matter, the Commission had alleged that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when Google Buzz was launched in 2010. Google and the FTC agreed on a settlement that bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations; requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy policy; and initiates regular, independent privacy audits of the company for the next two decades.

Some people with Google Profiles are apparently already protesting the change in the Terms of Service. A tweet retweeted by Daring Fireball's John Gruber seemed to reveal a clever action in which some Google users were replacing their own profile picture with a shot of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt . The idea is that if the effort were to snowball, all Shared Endorsements would bear Schmidt's photo.

Here's the complete text of Markey's letter to the FTC (we have an e-mail out to Google on this and will update if we hear back):

October 12, 2013

The Honorable Edith Ramirez
Chairwoman
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001

Dear Chairwoman Ramirez:

Yesterday, Google proposed changes to its Terms of Service. The company's proposed new policy will soon make it possible to display users' names, photos, and endorsements of marketers' products across the Web. This shift in Google's policy raises a number of important questions about whether Google is altering its privacy policy in a manner inconsistent with its consent agreement with the Commission and, if the changes go into effect, the degree to which users' identities, words, and opinions could be shared across the Web.

Under the new advertisement policy, called "shared endorsements", users' names and pictures, along with their ratings or comments, could appear in advertisements on any of the millions of Web sites that comprise Google's display advertising network. For example, if a user follows a restaurant on Google Plus, that user's name, photo, and positive endorsement may be displayed in advertisements for that restaurant that friends and others see.

I understand that, according to Google's Terms of Service Update: "When it comes to shared endorsements in ads, you can control the use of your Profile name and photo via the Shared Endorsements setting. If you turn the setting to "off," your Profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery or any other ads." Nevertheless, Google's Update continues: "This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn't change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play."

Moreover, in addition to being an opt-out mechanism, Google's announced privacy changes come over two years after the company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. In that matter, the Commission had alleged that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when Google Buzz was launched in 2010. Google and the FTC agreed on a settlement that bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations; requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy policy; and initiates regular, independent privacy audits of the company for the next two decades.

I respectfully request the Commission's views on whether Google's planned changes violate the settlement agreement. I also request that the Commission provide me with information about any actions it has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google's proposed changes to its privacy policy violate its agreement with the Commission.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. If you have any questions, please have a member of your staff contact Joseph Wender at 202-224-2742.

Sincerely,
Edward J. Markey

Tags:
Internet
FTC
About the author

Edward Moyer is an associate editor at CNET News and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch.

 

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