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FTC To Investigate Google’s ‘Search Plus Your World’

January 15, 2012

An ongoing antitrust investigation into the activities of Google, the world’s most popular search engine, will reportedly be expanded to include the company’s new social network, an unidentified source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Friday.

The move comes on the heels of a Tuesday announcement from the Mountain View, California-based company that they were unveiling new features that would lead to more personalized search engine results for Google+ members, the news organization added.

The new features, which can be toggled on or off, would allow posts, comments, and photos from the social network to appear in response to an individual’s query.

The expansion of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) probe in the U.S. was also the topic of a January 13 article by Sara Forden and Brian Womack of Bloomberg, who cite “two people familiar with the situation” as the source of their information.

“The competition issues raised by Google+ go to the heart of the FTC´s investigation into whether the company is giving preference to its own services in search results and whether that practice violates antitrust laws, said the people, who declined to be identified because the probe isn’t public,” Forden and Womack said.

“We believe that our improvements to search will benefit consumers,” Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich told Forden and Womack in an email. “The laws are designed to help consumers benefit from innovation, not to help competitors.”

The new search engine feature, which the company has dubbed “Search Plus Your World,” was announced earlier this week. It allows Google to access information from Google+, as well as photos from the Picasa picture-sharing service, whenever a user is logged into their respective accounts. There are plans to incorporate additional Google services in the future, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Thursday, CNET’s Elinor Mills reported that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had asked FTC regulators to study Search Plus Your World to see whether or not it violated federal antitrust laws and/or poses a threat to consumer privacy.

“We asked the FTC, as part of its current investigation of possible antitrust violations, to assess whether the changes in Google Search also constitute an antitrust violation, and also whether the changes in Google Search violate the consent order Google recently signed with the Federal Trade Commission,” EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg told Mills during a conference call.

That agreement between Google and the FTC came about in March, and as a result of Google’s now defunct social network Buzz, which EPIC complained, by default, would display the private Gmail email information of the people a Buzz user most recently had made contact with. Users would have to disable to feature in order to prevent private and potentially sensitive information about themselves and their contacts to be publically revealed.

Under that deal, Google is required “to establish a comprehensive privacy program, to undergo independent audits of its privacy practices for 20 years, and to make new features opt-in if they provide additional sharing of certain types of private information,” Mills said. “But now EPIC believes that adding Google+ into search results the way it has is a violation of that agreement.”

“We don’t think people would reasonably expect that as a user of Google+ you would expect people to find that information through Google Search,” Rotenberg told CNET. “You are opted in and have to choose to opt out and that seems to us to be contrary to the consent order that the FTC established“¦ There’s a strong parallel with Buzz — opt in Gmail users to launch a social network service. Now they’re using search to promote Google+.”

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports