Google Spends Record $16.83 Million On 2014 Lobbying, Topping 15 Tech And Communications Companies; Facebook, Amazon, Apple Also Post Records

SANTA MONICA, CA – Google spent a record $16.83 million on lobbying in its efforts to influence federal regulators and lawmakers in 2014, just ahead of Comcast’s reported $16.80 million, according to records filed with the Clerk of the House and analyzed today by Consumer Watchdog.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, monitors the lobbying disclosure reports of 15 tech and communications companies. Facebook, Apple and Amazon also set corporate records for the amount they each spent.  The 15 companies spent a total of $116.62 million on lobbying in 2014, a 3 percent decrease from a total of  $120.28 million in 2013.  Six of the 15 companies increased their 2014 spending, while the rest cut back from 2013 levels

“It’s important to understand just how much money these companies are throwing around in Washington to buy the policies they want,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “Policymaking is now all about big bucks, not big ideas.”

Here is a link to the Clerk of the House’s Lobbying Disclosure database: http://disclosures.house.gov/ld/ldsearch.aspx

Google spent $16.83 million on lobbying in 2014 compared with $14.06 million in 2013, a 20 percent increase. Google’s fourth quarter lobbying expenditure was $3.78 million, a decrease of 5 percent from $3.98 million, in 2013.

Microsoft, Google’s archrival, which used to regularly outspend the Internet giant, spent roughly half of what Google spent. Microsoft reported spending  $8.33 million, a decrease of 20 percent from $10.49 million spent on 2013 lobbying.  Fourth quarter lobbing expenses were  $2.25 million compared to a $2.77 million, a 19 percent decrease from 2013.

Facebook, which has substantially increased its Washington presence over the last three years, posted another company record in its effort to influence policymakers.  Spending soared 45 percent to $9.34 million from $6.43 million in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $1.99 million compared to $1.48 million, an increase of 39 percent.

Amazon also posted a company record its disclosure forms show. It reported lobbying expenditures of $4.74 million, a 37 percent increase from $3.46 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was $1.67 million vs. $960,000, an increase of 74 percent.

Apple, too, is increasing its Washington activities. It spent $4.11 million in 2014, a record and a 22 percent increase from $3.37 million spent in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $1.19 million vs. $990,000 a 20 percent increase.

Here are the 2014 lobbying amounts for five other tech firms:

— Cisco spent $2.35 million in 2014, a 25 percent decrease from $3.12 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was $310,000 vs. $890,000 a decrease of 65 percent.

— IBM spent $4.95 million in 2014 a 30 percent decrease from $7.06 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was  $1.15 million vs. $1.90 million, a decrease of 39 percent.

— Intel spent $3.80 million in 2014, a 13 percent decrease from $4.39 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was $980,000 vs. $1.45 million vs., a decrease of 32 percent.

— Oracle spent $5.83 million a decrease of 3 percent from  $5.99 million in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $1.66 million vs. $1.60 million, an increase of 4 percent.

— Yahoo spent $2.94 million in 2014, an increase of 6 percent from $2.78 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was $740,000 vs. $720,000, an increase of 3 percent.

Two of three telecommunications companies decreased their spending on lobbying, while one increased expenditures in 2014:

— AT&T spent $14.56 million, a 9 percent decrease from $15.94 million in 2012. Fourth quarter spending was $3.06 million vs. $3.64 million, a decrease of 16 percent.

— Sprint spent $2.99 million, a 9 percent increase of from $2.75 million in 2013. Fourth quarter spending was $772,658 vs. $716,887, an increase of 8 percent.

— Verizon spent $11.22 million, a decrease of 17 percent from $13.44 million in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $2.97 million vs. $3.46 million, a decrease of 14 percent.

Here are 2014 lobbying expenditures for two cable companies:

— Comcast spent $16.8 million in 2014, a 10 percent decrease from $18.71 million in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $5.03 million vs. $4.78 million, a 5 percent increase.

— Time Warner Cable spent  $7.83 million in 2014, a 6 percent decrease from $8.29 million in 2013.  Fourth quarter spending was $2.2 million vs. $2.49 million, a decrease of 12 percent.

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Consumer Watchdog Welcomes Death Of Google Glass, Says Internet Giant Should Not Offer “Glass 2.0” Until Privacy Issues Are Solved

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today welcomed Google’s announcement that it would stop selling Google Glass, its privacy invasive wearable computing device and said the Internet giant should not offer a new version until privacy issues are solved.

“Google Glass may have appealed to a bunch of socially clueless ‘Glassholes’ who were oblivious to our privacy rights, but the device fulfilled no real consumer need,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “I’m only surprised it took them so long to kill the program as we know it.”

Last April the nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group issued a report that found Glass inappropriate for the broad consumer market and urged consumers not to buy the device. Read the Consumer Watchdog’s Glass report here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/goolgeglassreport041414.pdf

Noting that Google said the company still hopes to offer a revised version of Glass, Consumer Watchdog said a Glass 2.0 must include privacy protections. The key problem with the wearable device, Consumer Watchdog said, is that it allows a user to easily make surreptitious and intrusive video recordings.

“Simply put, it is a perfect stalker’s tool,” said Simpson. “It’s difficult to see how they solve that.”

Consumer Watchdog’s April study offered this analysis: “While the device might be useful in a few narrow specialized circumstances, Google Glass is inappropriate for the broad consumer market. It threatens the privacy of both people whose images are captured unbeknownst to them and the user of the device.  It can distract the user at critical moments, perhaps when driving, posing a safety hazard. As Google itself acknowledges, Google Glass can pose health risks in some circumstances.  It can easily be used for improper and even criminal purposes.  It is a stalker’s delight and our tests of the device demonstrated how easily it could be used to surreptitiously capture a person’s PIN when they use an ATM.”

“Glassholes wanted the device because they thought it made them look cool,” said Simpson. “Now even Google gets that it didn’t.”

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Consumer Watchdog Warns Obama Not To Undercut Strong State Data and Privacy Laws

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today welcomed President Obama’s attention on consumer privacy and data breach issues, but cautioned that legislation he proposes must not provide weaker protection than is already offered by some state laws.

“It’s good that the president has re-focused on privacy and data security issues, but it would be terrible his proposals preempt stronger state laws and offer less protection.” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “Any national consumer privacy laws should be a floor, not a ceiling. States must be allowed to enact stronger measures.”

In speech at the Federal Trade Commission Obama said he would propose the Personal Data Notification and Protection Act that would set a 30-day data breach notification standard as well as the Student Data Privacy Act law that would prohibit tech companies from selling data collected from students or using it to sell ads.

Obama also said the Commerce Department will offer legislation within 45 days that would implement the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, first unveiled by the White House two years ago.

Details of the president’s initiatives were not immediately available.

“We’re concerned that in an effort to achieve bipartisan action there is a real possibility of passing loophole-laden legislation that actually makes things worse,” said Simpson.

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Privacy Alert: Consumer Watchdog Urges Public to ‘Opt Out’ of Cal INDEX Electronic Health Information Exchange

Ten Questions Blue Cross & Blue Shield Must Answer Before Patients Agree To Share Medical Records, Says Consumer Watchdog

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today urged consumers to opt out of the new electronic health information exchange, Cal INDEX, that is being set up by Blue Cross and Blue Shield until key questions about patient privacy are answered.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group added that the best way to protect privacy when sharing patient information is an opt-in approach.

The California Integrated Data Exchange — Cal INDEX – is an electronic health information exchange that is collecting patient records from healthcare providers and health insurers to allow them to share patients’ health information.

Consumers’ medical information is already being collected by Cal INDEX from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but the organization has not yet made its privacy policy public, or clearly disclosed to the public how their medical information will be used.  Recently the two insurers have been notifying policyholders by mail and email that they have a right to opt out of having Cal INDEX share their records.

“If the exchange will do so much to benefit our health care, Cal INDEX should make that case and ask us to opt in,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “Instead, Blue Cross and Blue Shield are telling enrollees they can opt out during the busy holiday season when we are all distracted.  Worse, Cal INDEX fails to clearly explain its privacy protections and how it will operate. Consumers can’t make an informed decision based on what they’ve said so far.”

Consumer Watchdog said that while a comprehensive medical record exchange may ultimately help patients, the exchange must be transparent about its purposes before people agree to share their medical records.  Below are ten questions that must be answered before consumers can reasonably be expected to make a decision about what to do:

— What is Cal INDEX’s privacy policy and when will that policy be available to patients whose information is already being collected by Cal INDEX?

— Will I be able to see everything Cal INDEX collects on me?

— What providers submit patient information to the Cal INDEX network, and who has access to that information?

— If I opt out of Cal INDEX, but my medical provider is a participant, is my data still collected by Cal INDEX even if other providers can’t access it?

— Can I correct my Cal INDEX record if it is wrong?

— If I opt in and later change my mind, can I have my data removed from Cal INDEX?

— Can I choose which medical providers may share my information, and which may not, to protect medical information I do not want shared?

— Will my medical information be available to anyone other than my medical providers and insurance companies?

— What will health insurers do with my records? If I am covered by one insurer, will another insurer have access to my information?

— Will health insurance companies use the medical records on Cal INDEX for any purpose other than to provide my medical information to my medical providers?

“No consumer yet has enough information to decide whether to opt into Cal INDEX,” said Simpson. “The best privacy protection for now is to opt out.  You can always opt in when they make it clear what the benefits and protections will be.”

Cal INDEX is being set up with $80 million in seed money from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of California. The insurers’ money will fund it for three years, with subscribers footing the bill after that.

Blue Shield and Blue Cross announced creation of the health information exchange to create a comprehensive collection of electronic patient records including clinical data from healthcare providers and health insurers. Cal INDEX says it will allow physicians, nurses and hospitals throughout the state to share patients’ health information and will provide them with the tools to help them give their patients the safest, highest-quality care possible. Cal INDEX says the exchange will help avoid possible duplicate procedures, cut medical costs, and provide data for medical research.

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Consumer Watchdog Urges European Parliament To Approve Call To Break Up Google

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today urged the European Parliament to pass a resolution calling for the break-up of Google to end the Internet giant’s monopolistic dominance, a remedy that the U.S. public interest group proposed more than four years ago.

The Parliament is expected today to take up a motion calling for the unbundling of search engines from a company’s other commercial services.

“It’s long been clear that Google uses its search results to unfairly advantage its own services,” said John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. “We proposed the break-up remedy to the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2010.”

While the European Parliament doesn’t have the power to break up Google, Consumer Watchdog said passage of the resolution would increase pressure on the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to take a tougher line on Google in its antitrust investigation of the company or through the introduction of laws to curb Google’s reach.

Under former Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia there were three proposed settlements of the Commission’s four-year antitrust probe of Google, all of which were determined to offer inadequate remedies.

Incoming Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is deciding what to next.

“The Commission should file a formal Statement of Objections,” said Simpson. “Breaking the Internet giant up into different companies according to the different lines of business is the way to go. We called for this back in 2010 and the need to do it has become even clearer as Google’s power has increased.”

Consumer Watchdog said letters on Tuesday from senior U.S. lawmakers expressing alarm about the European Parliament break-up resolution missed the point.

“Google got itself into this jam by its arrogant abuse of its tremendous power. I’m glad Europe’s parliamentarians see how dangerous Google is and are speaking out about it,” said Simpson. “U.S. consumers would be better served if our senators and congressmen did so too, instead of carrying Google’s water.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s April 2010 news release here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/consumer-watchdog-calls-justice-department-launch-antitrust-action-against-google-includ

“Such action could include breaking Google Inc. into multiple separate companies or regulating it as a public utility,” Consumer Watchdog’s 2010 letter to the Justice Department said. “Google exerts monopoly power over Internet searches, controlling 70 percent of the U.S. market.  For most Americans – indeed, for most people in the world – Google is the gateway to the Internet. How it tweaks its proprietary search algorithms can ensure a business’s success or doom it to failure.”

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Consumer Watchdog Praises European Parliament’s Call To Break Up Google

Public Interest Group Proposed This Plan To End Search Dominance 4 Years Ago

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today praised an expected call from the European Parliament to break up Google to end the Internet giant’s monopolistic dominance, a remedy that the public interest group proposed more than four years ago.

The Financial Times first reported today that the European Parliament is expected to call for the break-up next week.  The newspaper said the motion, if passed as expected, would “increase political pressure on he European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to take a tougher line on Google, either in its antitrust investigation into the company or through the introduction of laws to curb its reach.”

The FT reported that its reporters had seen a draft motion that calls for the “unbundling [of] search engines from other commercial services.”

“It’s long been clear that Google uses its search results to unfairly advantage its own services,” said John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project. “We proposed the break-up remedy to the U.S. Department of Justice in April, 2010.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s April 2010 news release here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/consumer-watchdog-calls-justice-department-launch-antitrust-action-against-google-includ

“Such action could include breaking Google Inc. into multiple separate companies or regulating it as a public utility,” Consumer Watchdog’s 2010 letter said. “Google exerts monopoly power over Internet searches, controlling 70 percent of the U.S. market.  For most Americans – indeed, for most people in the world – Google is the gateway to the Internet. How it tweaks its proprietary search algorithms can ensure a business’s success or doom it to failure.”

There have been three proposed settlements of the European Commission’s ongoing antitrust investigation of Google, all of which were determined to be inadequate.

“The Commission should file a formal Statement of Objections,” said Simpson. “Breaking the Internet giant up into different companies according to the different lines of business is the way to go. We called for this back in 2010 and the need to do this has become even clearer as Google’s power has increased.”

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Automakers’ Privacy Principles Offer Little Real Protection, Consumer Watchdog Says

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Privacy Protection Principles just released by two automakers’ trade associations do little to protect consumers’ sensitive data that is increasingly collected by modern cars and trucks, Consumer Watchdog said today.

“The broad principles based on the Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) — transparency, choice, respect for context, data minimization, and data security — sound good, but the rest of the document that explains how they will be implemented reads like it was written by lawyers paid by the word to obfuscate the issues, rather than make them clear,” said John M. Simpson, director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group’s Privacy Project. “It is full of loopholes.”

Consumer Watchdog said a positive aspect of the release of the principles by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers is that the manufacturers are finally acknowledging that modern vehicles collect a tremendous amount of sensitive personal information that threatens consumers’ privacy.

Read the automakers’ principles here: www.automotiveprivacy.com

“The auto manufacturers want to claim this loophole laden self-regulatory code means that there is no need for real regulations with penalties to protect consumers,” said Simpson. “Instead, the automakers’ principles show what happens when the fox writes the rules governing the henhouse. Drivers need real privacy protection, backed by the law. I hope this woefully inadequate document prompts policymakers to act.”

Consumer Watchdog applauded the automakers pledge that they won’t turn over geo-location information to law enforcement agencies without a warrant, but beyond that found little meaningful protection or choice for consumers. “They pledge not to use your data for marketing without permission, but it looks like they plan to keep profiles on you for just about any other purpose,” said Simpson.

The principles’ data security provision is troublesome, Consumer Watchdog said.  The provision says, “Participating members commit to implementing reasonable measures to protect covered information against loss and unauthorized access of use.”  It defines reasonable measures to “include standard industry practices. Those practices evolve over time and in reaction to evolving threats and vulnerabilities.”

“Put that into plain English and it translates to:  We commit to do what we’re doing now.  If there’s enough pressure and criticism we may do more in the future,” said Simpson.

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Moffett Field Lease Deal Wrongly Rewards Google Execs’ Longstanding Abuse

SANTA MONICA, CA – NASA’s just announced lease agreement with a Google subsidiary to manage Moffett Federal Airfield wrongly rewards the Internet giant’s executives for longstanding abuses at Ames Research Center, Consumer Watchdog said.

NASA claimed the lease would save the agency approximately $6.3 million annually in maintenance and operation costs and provide $1.16 billion in rent over the initial 60-year lease term.

“In fact the lease gives Google unprecedented control of a federal facility to use as its own playground,” said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project.

Last December a NASA audit found that the jet fleet owned through a company called H211 by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Co-Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin received an unwarranted discount worth up to $5.3 million on jet fuel purchased from the government while basing their fleet of corporate jets at Moffett.

“This is like giving the keys to your car to the guy who has been siphoning gas from your tank,” said Simpson. “It is unfairly rewarding unethical and wrongful behavior.  These Google guys seem to think they can do whatever they want and get away with it – and, sadly, it looks like that is true.”

Google has said it plans to test its driverless cars at Moffett, which would enable it to escape California regulations requiring that such vehicles must have a driver capable of taking over control.

In December NASA Inspector General Paul Martin wrote:

“Specifically, we calculated that since inception of its lease H211 paid approximately $3.3 million to $5.3 million less in fuel costs that it would have paid to buy fuel at market rates compared to the amount it paid DLA-Energy. We also found that H211 received a significant discount on fuel for its many non-NASA-related flights to which it was not entitled. While this arrangement did not cause an economic loss to NASA or DLA-Energy, it did result in considerable savings for H211 and engendered a sense of unfairness and a perception of favoritism toward H211 and its owners. Accordingly, we recommend that NASA explore with the company possible options to remedy this situation.”

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Google Spends $3.94 Million On 3rd Quarter Lobbying; Comcast Spends $4.23 Million; Facebook Lists $2.45 Million As Amazon Sets Record Of $1.18 Million, Reports Show

SANTA MONICA, CA – Google spent $3.94 million lobbying the federal government in the third quarter, off from its record $5.30 million in the previous quarter, but up 17 percent from $3.37 million in the comparable period in 2013, according to records just filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and analyzed today by Consumer Watchdog.

Of 15 tech and communications companies’ lobbying spending monitored by Consumer Watchdog only Comcast, which is seeking approval for a $45 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable spent more than the Internet giant, reporting lobbying costs for the third quarter of $4.23 million.  Nine of the 15 companies monitored trimmed their expenditures compared to the third quarter of 2013.

Facebook spent $2.45 million, topping $2.12 million spent in the second quarter, but not quite matching their record $2.78 million spent in the first quarter.  Third-quarter spending by the social network in 2014 increased 70 percent from $1.44 million in 2013.

Amazon set another company record for its spending, $1.18 million, spending more than $1 million in a quarter for the second time.  Amazon’s lobbying outlay was a 51 percent increase from $780,000 in 2013. Amazon spent $1.06 million in the second quarter of 2014.

Google’s archrival Microsoft, which until recently had outspent Google on lobbying efforts, trimmed its outlay to $1.66 million, decrease of 26 percent from $2.23 million in 2013.  It was also below second quarter spending of  $2.34 million.

“These lobbying disclosure statements don’t include payments to trade associations or the sort of ‘soft’ lobbying that has become a Google trademark – funds to think tanks and academic research centers,” noted Simpson. “When all that is factored in, the amounts are staggering. Policymaking is no longer about what’s right; it’s all about the money.”

(Update: Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president for government communications, called to explain that a portion of trade assocaition dues, based on the lobbying done by the association, such as the National Cable and Telecommunications Assiciation, is in fact included in Comcast’s total reported lobbying amount. The figure is not broken out anywhere, but the trade association reports what it spent on lobbying. NCTA spent $3.81 million on lobbying in the third quarter, House disclosure records show.)

View the Clerk of the House’s Lobbying Disclosure database here: http://disclosures.house.gov/ld/ldsearch.aspx

Here are the third quarter lobbying amounts for the six other tech firms:
— Apple spent $1.01 million in 2014, a 4 percent increase from $970,000 in 2013.
— Cisco Systems spent $730,00 in 2014, an 18 percent decrease from $890,000 in 2013.
— IBM spent $850,000 in 2014, a 28 percent decrease from $1.18 million in 2013.
— Intel spent $810,000 in 2014, a 23 percent decrease from $1.12 million in 2013.
— Oracle spent $1.20 million in 2014, a 12 percent decrease from $1.36 million in 2013.
— Yahoo spent $730,000 in 2014, a 16 percent increase from $630,000 in 2013.

Here are third quarter lobbying expenditures for three telecommunications companies:
— AT&T spent $3.47 million, a 19 percent decrease from $4.30 million in 2013.
— Sprint spent $706,343, a 2 percent decrease from $718,096 in 2013.
— Verizon spent $2.91 million, a 4 percent decrease from $3.04 million in 2013.

Here are lobbying expenditures for two cable companies:
— Comcast spent $4.23 million, a 6 percent increase from $3.98 million in 2013.
— Time Warner Cable spent $1.80 million, an 8 percent decrease from $1.96 million in 2013.

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California Is A Long Way From Driverless Cars, Consumer Watchdog Tells Insurance Commissioner

Urges Focus On Immediate Concerns Of Privacy And Auto Safety

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today challenged the idea that widespread use of fully autonomous or driverless cars is imminent, and urged the state Insurance Commissioner to focus on immediate consumer concerns of auto safety and privacy.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group also rejected insurance industry arguments that California Proposition 103’s consumer protections would not be necessary as vehicles become automated.

“California is a long, long way from the so-called ‘autonomous vehicle.’ … As exciting as the prospect of improved automated safety technologies may be, experience suggests that their development and application will take many years and that there may be finite limits to the degree of automation that will be acceptable,” Consumer Watchdog said. “So long as consumers are personally responsible for maintaining and operating their vehicles in order to prevent accidents, the Proposition 103 reforms enacted by California voters will be necessary to protect consumers.”

Consumer Watchdog sent  its formal comments to Insurance Commission Dave Jones late Wednesday in response to an “informational hearing” on insurance issues surrounding autonomous cars convened by the agency in September.  Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group, Pam Pressley, its Litigation Director, and John M. Simpson, Privacy Project Director, signed the letter.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s comments here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/2014-10-1_cwd_auto_vehicles_comments.pdf

Consumer Watchdog said that despite a high profile public relations campaign by Google and other high-tech firms suggesting that a driverless car system is just around the corner it will be decades — if ever — before fully autonomous, driverless vehicles replace the personal responsibility model, based on a driver at the wheel.

Safety. Consumer Watchdog said safety should be the paramount concern of the insurance industry and the Department, because flaws and failures in automated vehicle systems will pose a potentially catastrophic threat to public safety and lead to more, and more costly, insurance claims.

“Insurance companies, with a continuous stream of incoming claims, are uniquely situated to detect and report patterns of safety failures. Yet industry-wide, insurers continue to maintain their historic disinterest in safety and loss prevention,” the letter said. “Industry representatives at the hearing were emphatic about the need to obtain data, but said nothing about using their existing claims data to monitor vehicle defects today.”

Consumer Watchdog urged the Department to propose a regulation that would require insurance companies to report such vehicle safety information to the Department (in the aggregate, so no personal data is disclosed).  This is a safety measure that would have an immediate impact, the group said.

Consumer Watchdog said it is possible that the technology needed to manufacture vehicles that operate “autonomously” with one hundred percent safety will eventually be perfected. “But in the meantime, under any realistic scenario for the near or even distant future, human drivers will be responsible for maintaining control of their vehicle in order to prevent an accident, just as they must be now,” the letter said.

Privacy.  Consumer Watchdog said another assumption widely shared by industry representatives at the hearing is that motorists will have to sacrifice their right to privacy in order to benefit from advanced automobile technologies – suggesting that when it comes to their cars, motorists will have to tolerate the practices pioneered by Google and other companies that specialize in collecting and monetizing data about consumers’ online and offline activities

“Google and its personal data collecting colleagues will also want to enhance the digital dossiers they already compile for each American by including where motorists are going and what they’re doing, so advertisers can target their products, and perhaps subject motorists to the distraction of continuous advertising,” the letter warned.

“Barely a word about data privacy was heard from industry representatives at the hearing. Unlike the distant vision of driverless cars, privacy is an area of immediate consumer concern today,” the letter said. “We urge the Department to investigate and restrict the growing use of private data by insurance companies. In every respect, sharing personal data should be a choice made affirmatively and voluntarily by the consumer.”

Another “Digital Divide”? Consumer Watchdog said it strongly supports the development of new automotive technologies, particularly those that will prevent deaths and injuries (and reduce dependence on fossil fuels). Many of the safety technologies under development today, could, if affordable enough to be widely deployed, significantly reduce the frequency and cost of accidents. However, the group warned:

“Like the much-hyped Google Glass, automated cars may end up an expensive toy for those who can afford it, while the rest of us continue to rely on cars that we drive to take us to work, to family and for recreation. The Department must ensure that insurance companies do not unfairly discriminate against those who cannot afford, or choose not to utilize, automated technologies.”

Proposition 103 consumer protections. Proposition 103 was enacted by the voters twenty-six years ago to both hold rates to fair levels and ensure that each motorist’s premium is based on rating factors within their control. The organization rejected suggestions by insurance industry representatives that automation technology might render the current “fault based” personal responsibility system obsolete. “In the face of the insurance industry’s wishful-thinking, we urge you and your staff to remain vigilant in the defense and enforcement of current consumer protections,” the letter said.

“Under any system in which a motorist is or may be required to control the vehicle, the motorist’s individual responsibility, as reflected by their driving record, will remain of paramount importance, and thus properly the single most important determinant of their premium, as the statute specifies,” the letter said. “Similarly, annual mileage and years of driving experience, along with several of the optional rating factors previously adopted by the Commissioner, reflect the motorist’s risk, without regard to whether the policyholder is driving a car equipped with automation technology.”

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Consumer Watchdog Endorses “Focus On The User” Project

Website & “Widget” Demonstrate How Google Favors Its Own Services In Local Search Results

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today endorsed a new website, “Focus on the User” and a downloadable “widget” available on the site that demonstrates how Google favors its own services in local search results.

View the web site here: http://focusontheuser.eu/

“Consumer Watchdog endorses the ‘Focus on the User’ project as an important way to educate consumers and policymakers about Google’s unfair search practices,” said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy project.

The website explains how Google uses its Google+ service to skew results in the so-called “one-box” that highlights results from location-based services.

“Google is acting anti-competitively by abusing its dominant position in organic search to tie its vertical search products, depriving consumers of relevant results, stifling competition and impairing innovation,” the “Focus on the User” website says. “Consumers need to be able to access competitive sources of information from across the web; by tying its own vertical search products to organic search results, Google prevents this.”

Importantly, the “Focus on the User” website goes beyond rhetoric and offers a downloadable widget, “Focus on the User – local”, that was developed by computer engineers from Yelp and TripAdvisor. The widget is an extension for Google’s browser, Chrome and allows the user to click between a display based on organic search results and the skewed results offered by Google because it ties them to Google+. The widget gives best results if searches are done on one of Google’s European domains, such as Google.ie or Google.co.uk, because they do not display a “carousel” of location results, but rather a simple one-box.

“Consumers can see and understand what’s going on in real time,” said Simpson.  “It’s eye opening and is a valuable tool.”

Google has been under investigation by the European Commission for antitrust violations since 2010.  Earlier this year the Internet giant offered a third settlement proposal.  Over the summer significant objections to the proposed deal were raised and outgoing Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said further concessions from Google would be needed to reach a settlement.

The case won’t be closed before Almunia leaves office Oct. 31 and it will be taken over by incoming Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, former Danish Economics Minister. She will decide whether a negotiated settlement can be reached or if a formal Statement of Objections – like an indictment – should be filed.  That could make the Internet giant liable for fines of up to about $5 billion.

HolidayCheck, Jameda and Fight for the Future also endorsed the “Focus on the User” project.

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Consumer Privacy Groups Stress Opposition To Settlement In Google Privacy Suit

SANTA MONICA, CA — Five consumer privacy groups today emphasized their continuing opposition to a proposed $8.5 million settlement in a class action suit against Google for privacy violations in the way it handled users’ search data because the chanel espadrilles proposed deal provides no benefit to class members.

In a letter to Judge Edward J. Davila, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the Center for Digital Democracy and Patient Privacy Rights said:

“First, the proposed settlement fails to require Google to make any substantive changes to its business practices; second, it provides no monetary relief to the class; and third, the proposed cy pres allocations do not meet the Ninth Circuit’s requirements for alignment with the interests of class members.”

Read the groups’ letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/cpo-ltr-judge-davila-re-gaos.pdf

The final fairness hearing in the case, known as the Google Referrer Header Litigation, is before Judge Davaila on Friday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA.

“As the date of the final fairness hearing approaches, we respectfully urge you to address the ‘obvious deficiencies’ we identified in our letter to you last year,” the groups wrote.

Read the groups’ earlier letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/epicetal-inregoogle-10-13.pdf

The five consumer privacy groups have also asked the Federal Trade Commission and the California Attorney General to oppose the settlement.

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Consumer Privacy Groups Urge Obama To Propose Strong Privacy Law

SANTA MONICA, CA — Consumer Watchdog has joined with six other consumer privacy organizations in calling for President Obama to propose strong privacy legislation in the groups’ comments on the White House report on “big data.”

“Enacting baseline privacy legislation that implements a strong and resonant Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights (CPBR) is the single most effective way to answer the public’s call for basic online privacy rights, ensure trust in the online marketplace, and create a level playing field for online businesses,” the groups wrote in their filing.

There are six key recommendations that a privacy law should include that would strengthen the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, the groups said.  They are:  Make it consequential; Fill in the blanks of the Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPS); Recognize the real harms and significant risks; Carve out special protections for sensitive categories; and Implement practical solutions.

Read the groups’ joint letter to the the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration here:  http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ntia_big_data_comments_final.pdf

The groups said that as the White House looks to its legacy, implementing a strong and comprehensive Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights “would be an iconic moment in American consumer protection.”

“The privacy bill should be a benchmark for modern consumer protection that respects Americans’ deep history of personal privacy in a technology context,” the groups said. “We believe that it’s preferable for the Administration to propose nothing, rather than a weak bill that does little to advance privacy protections.”

The letter concluded: “The proposal and enactment of strong consumer privacy legislation in the context of the CPBR is essential toward achieving the complimentary goals of protecting the privacy rights of consumers, maintaining consumer trust online and supporting business innovation.”

In addition to Consumer Watchdog the following organizations joined in the comments: American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Common Sense Media and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

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Visit Consumer Watchdog’s website at www.consumerwatchdog.org