Advocates Call For FTC Investigation Into Google Privacy Violations
February 9, 2012

Advocates Call For FTC Investigation Into Google Privacy Violations

Google´s plans to tie together data of users across services beginning in March has resulted in privacy advocates filing a federal lawsuit in the US District Court of the District of Columbia this week. The lawsuit hopes to force government officials to punish Google over the plans, reports Byron Acohido for USA Today.

The complaint, by the Electronic Privacy and Information Center (EPIC), says Google violates a settlement agreement the company struck with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year over a separate privacy controversy.

Google could face fines of up to $10,000 for each violation of the June 2011 settlement terms, an amount that could leave quite a large dent in Google´s fortunes because of the popularity of its services, experts say.

EPIC said in its suit, “The imminent change in Google´s business practices threatens the same customer interests that the FTC´s consent decree sought to protect. If the FTC does not act to prevent the change, all Google users, including EPIC, face an imminent harm that is both certain and great.”

The privacy policy changes were not commented on directly by the FTC, but spokeswoman Claudia Farrell told several news outlets that the agency, “takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated.”

The FTC´s settlement with Google last summer came after it charged the company with exposing private information of Gmail users as it introduced its social network, Google Buzz. Google is required, under the terms of the settlement, to clearly notify users of new changes in its privacy policies, reports Cecilia Kang for the Washington Post.

Buzz was added to the Gmail accounts of about 176 million users without asking their permission, instantly establishing a list of Facebook-like friends, with an algorithm selecting up to 50 of each Gmail user´s contacts and designated them as Buzz followers, similar to how Twitter users follow each other´s postings.

“Buzz involved the combining of data from discrete services and it gave rise to the consent order,” Marc Rotenberg, EPIC´s executive director told the USA Today reporter. “This is about combining data across the entire Google platform, even after they were made subject to the consent order. As a legal matter we think it is far more serious.”

Google defends its new policy saying it does not violate the settlement it reached with the FTC. “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 spokesman said in a statement to Jessica Guynn of the Los Angeles Times.

Google claims its services will improve by combining a blanket privacy policy and make them easier for consumers to understand. A Google spokesman said it does not share users´ personal information outside of Google, just with its own services such as Gmail and Google Maps.

Rotenberg did not object to that point, but wants the new policy to be agreed to by each user. “If some users like the Google change in terms of service, that´s OK. They should opt in. But if other users don´t like the proposed change, they have the right to say no,” Rotenberg told Guynn.

“This has to be the user´s choice, not Google´s choice. And the FTC must enforce its consent order to protect the rights of users to make these choices.”

Google is being called upon by legislators to explain the changes, and is beginning to find resistance in Europe, reports Jessica Guynn for the Los Angeles Times. Regulators there have asked Google to delay the rollout of the new policy until they can investigate how the changes will affect consumers.

Google has said it plans to move forward even as the European Commission looks to overhaul its data protection rules to make them more stringent, writes Emma Woollacott for TG Daily.


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