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Group sues FTC over Google's planned privacy update

Electronic Privacy Information Center says the policy update violates of a 2011 privacy agreement between the agency and the company over its launch of Google Buzz.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
3 min read

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in an attempt to force it to prevent Google from implementing planned changes to the company's privacy policy.

The privacy group filed a complaint (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia requesting a preliminary injunction against the new rules, which are set to go into effect on March 1.

Google announced last month that it would rewrite its privacy policy to grant it explicit rights to "combine personal information" across multiple products and services. Google's 60 privacy policies for its different services are being rolled into one uber-policy that the company said is designed to be simpler and easier to understand.

EPIC, which once claimed that Google's introduction of Gmail was a "criminal" offense because e-mail messages were scanned, alleges that the forthcoming policy changes are "a clear violation" of a 2011 settlement agreement between the agency and the company over privacy concerns related to the launch of Google Buzz. Soon after the social network launched in February 2010, Google tweaked its privacy setup, acknowledging that it had been difficult to make one's list of followers private.

The privacy backlash led to the settlement agreement that required Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program and allow independent professionals to prepare regular reports on the company's privacy practices for the next 20 years.

"Google's announced changes to business practices will make it possible for advertisers to gain access to personal information which was previously unavailable to them," EPIC said in its filing. So far, the agency has "failed" to block Google from making the changes, "placing the privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions Internet users at grave risk."

Google responded by saying EPIC's lawsuit misinterprets the facts.

"We take privacy very seriously. We're happy to engage in constructive conversations about our updated Privacy Policy, but EPIC is wrong on the facts and the law," a Google representative said. "We're keeping your private information private--we're not changing how any personal information is shared outside of Google."

The spokesperson went on to say that Google has "undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history to ensure that users have many opportunities and ample time to learn about our Privacy Policy changes. And we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use Google services."

One frequent EPIC critic questioned the motivation behind the lawsuit.

"This is literally unprecedented, but it's not surprising coming from EPIC, which has taken a very aggressive anti-Google stand," said Berin Szoka, an attorney who's president of the Washington, D.C., think tank TechFreedom, which has been critical of EPIC's call for more data collection and use regulation. "I think it's safe to say that this is really a rather elaborate publicity stunt on EPIC's part."

Earlier this month, European Union officials asked Google to refrain from implementing its new privacy plan until the implications could be analyzed, but Google declined, saying that "delaying the new policy would cause significant confusion."