Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse File Complaint Over Google’s “Deceptive” Privacy Policy Change

Charge Internet Giant Violated “Buzz Consent Agreement” and FTC Act

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that Google violated the law and an earlier consent agreement when it forced a change in its privacy policy on users in a highly deceptive manner, without meaningful notice and consent.

The Internet giant’s action, taken on June 28, is an unfair and deceptive practice, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and also violates the terms of the “Buzz Consent Agreement” Google signed with the agency, the two California-based consumer advocacy organizations’ formal complaint said.

The so-called “Buzz Consent Agreement” was reached after Google released users’ personal information in violation of its own privacy policy when launching its ill-fated social network, Buzz, to compete with Facebook. Under the 2011 agreement Google said it would not misrepresent the privacy or confidentiality of individuals’ information. The Buzz Agreement also requires Google to get informed consent before sharing users’ information with third parties if Google changes the way data is shared contrary to the privacy promises made when the data was first collected. Google violated both obligations with its action in June, the complaint said.

Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearing House asked the FTC to claw back all advertising revenue earned by Google since the date of the change, citing past privacy violations by the internet giant as evidence that lesser penalties would not be enough to make the company respect consumers’ privacy rights. For example, the FTC issued the largest fine in its history, $22.5 million, when Google intentionally hacked Apple’s privacy protections, however that fine clearly failed to deter the company’s latest privacy violation.

“Fines Google has faced so far are but pocket change for Google. The company’s executives consider it merely the cost of doing business as they willfully violate our privacy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “The FTC must take meaningful action to stop this serial abuser and force it to give up its ill-gotten gains.”

Read the Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse complaint here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ftc_google_complaint_12-5-2016docx.pdf

“The change marked the culmination of a nearly decade-long deception that Google has perpetrated against its users, the FTC, and the public at large,” according to the complaint.

“This announcement intentionally misled users, who had no way to discern from the wording that Google was breaking from a nearly decade-old practice and asking them if it could link their personal information to data reflecting their behavior on as many as 80% of the Internet’s leading websites,” the complaint said. “A reasonable user would have been left with precisely the impression Google was seeking to leave: that the 2016 change was to their benefit and posed no risk to their privacy. In reality, the policy change marked the consummation of a deceptive path that Google had methodically charted since it first sought to acquire DoubleClick in 2007.”

“Google is a serial privacy violator,” said Simpson. “For the last decade they pretended to care about your privacy, but amassed ever growing amounts of data about you. Remember, you’re not their customer. You are Google’s product.”

For more than a decade Google has kept information gathered through “tracking cookies” separate from information gleaned from users’ accounts. Privacy advocates warned of the danger of combining the data gathered by DoubleClick, which tracked consumers as they surfed the web, with data gathered from Google’s accounts before Google bought DoubleClick. The Internet giant said it would keep the information separate and the deal went through.

That changed last June with the new privacy policy, but rather than being candid about what it was doing, the company mislead its users, Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse said.

“Google took affirmative steps to conceal and downplay the significance of this transformational change that eliminated the barrier between the data that Google gathers from cookies that track users’ behavior and the personal information that Google holds from its users’ accounts,” the complaint charged. “Google induced users to accept the change to its privacy policy by cloaking it in an offer to enable ‘new features’ that purport to provide ‘more control’ over users’ personal information. Unsuspecting users accepted Google’s offer in droves.”

The complaint spells out Google’s deceptive action:

This change was reflected in a parallel amendment to Google’s Privacy Policy. Google struck out the language in the policy stating that it would “not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.” Now, Google told its users that it “may combine information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services,” and that users’ “activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”

Users were not clearly informed of the significance of the changes—or “features” as Google would have it—nor were they clearly and unambiguously given a chance to reject them. Existing users who did not wish to accept the changes could not decline immediately, but instead were given the option to click “more options,” leading to a second notification. There, users could select “no changes,” which presumably meant that their personal data would not be combined with tracking data from third party sites and apps.

For new users, the combination of personal and browsing data was done by default. New users are notified that Google processes data from sources like Google Maps and from “apps or sites that use Google services like ads, Analytics, and the YouTube video player.” The notification later notes: “[w]e also combine data among our services and across your devices. . .

The organizations’ complaint warned that failure to act against Google would hurt consumers and could lead other companies to engage in wrongdoing. The complaint said:

“Google is a serial re-offender. It has repeatedly violated consumers’ privacy and, when sanctioned, ignored its commitments to the FTC. Failing to take action now would send the message that as far as Google’s encroachments are concerned, consumers are on their own. Indeed, if the FTC fails to take action against the largest and most significant misappropriation of personal information—which is personal property—in the Internet era, other companies will be left to conclude that they too can avoid accountability. The public, for its part, would be left to question the value of the FTC and the ability of the Commission to protect consumers. “

The complaint said Google’s action both violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and the so-called “Buzz Consent Agreement.” The complaint said Google engaged in a string of deceptive acts by:

• representing that it would not combine its users’ personally-identifiable information with DoubleClick’s browsing data.
• repeatedly assuring its users that it would be transparent in how it handled their data.
• acquiring massive troves of its users’ data under false pretenses.
• concealing the nature and extent of the change to its policies in order to obtain user consent.

Google violated the Buzz Consent Order by misrepresenting
• the extent to which it protects its users’ privacy and confidentiality.
• adheres to the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework.

Google was found to be hacking around privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser and setting tracking cookies in violation of the consent decree and was fined $22.5 million in 2012. In 2010 Google was caught using its Street View cars to suck up private data including emails, passwords and financial information, from private Wi-Fi networks. The FCC fined Google $25,000 for obstructing its investigation into the Wi-Spy scandal and the Internet giant paid $7 million to settle a complaint brought by 38 state attorneys general.

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Visit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse site at: www.privacyrights.org

Google Renames Robot Car Unit “Waymo” Reminding Us We Need to Know “Way More”

Company Correctly Backs Away from Offering Vehicles Without Steering Wheel and Pedals

SANTA MONICA, CA – Google’s new name for its robot car division, “Waymo,” fits, Consumer Watchdog said today, because it reminds us that we must know “way more” about robot cars and the serious policy issues they raise before self-driving cars can be safely deployed.

In announcing the new stand-alone robot car company CEO John Krafcik said self-driving cars would come with steering wheels and pedals for now, an apparent reversal of earlier plans. He said the company won’t make cars, but will partner with traditional automakers.

“Google – now Waymo – needs to tell the public way more about how their robot car systems work and what ethical choices are programmed into their secret algorithms,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “But, admitting that robot cars aren’t really ready to be put on our roads without steering wheels and the capability for a human driver to take control is an important acknowledgment of reality.”

Consumer Watchdog said that more information is critical to understanding the state and safety of self-driving technology. For example, data that is provided in the disengagement reports required by the California Department of Motor Vehicles showing when the robot driver failed in cars being tested. Google’s last disengagement report said its self-driving technology failed 341 times in 425,000 miles – 272 times because the software couldn’t cope, turning over control to the test driver and 69 times when the driver decided to intervene for safety reasons. The next disengagement reports are due to be filed with the DMV Jan. 1, 2017.

Google says the robot car company’s new name, “Waymo,” stands for “Way forward in mobility.”

“Google may want go forward,” said Simpson, “but there is way mo’ we need to know before they are allowed to.”

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Consumer Watchdog Welcomes FCC’s New Broadband Privacy Rules Passed On 3-to-2 Vote

Calls For Consumer Privacy Protections To Be Extended To Cover All Internet Companies

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today welcomed the Federal Communications Commission’s new broadband privacy rules enacted on a 3-to-2 vote as a major step toward protecting consumers’ online privacy, but added it is now necessary to extend protections to cover the rest of the Internet.

“Today’s FCC action gives broadband users significant control over their information. It’s a major step forward in protecting consumers’ privacy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director. “But the FCC action only covers ISPs. We now need privacy rules – possibly enacted through legislation – that cover the rest of the web, the so-called Internet edge providers like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon.”

The FCC gained authority over Internet Service Providers when it acted to ensure “Net Neutrality” by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers and regulating them like utilities.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, praised Chairman Tom Wheeler’s statement that information about consumers gathered by ISPs belongs to the consumer and not the company. The FCC Factsheet said:

“Providers have the ability to see a tremendous amount of their customers’ personal information that passes over that Internet connection, including their browsing habits. Consumers deserve the right to decide how that information is used and shared — and to protect their privacy and their children’s privacy online.”

Read the FCC Factsheet here: https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-adopts-broadband-consumer-privacy-rules

The new FCC rules require that ISPs obtain affirmative “opt-in” consent from consumers to use and share sensitive information. The rules specify categories of information that are considered sensitive, which include precise geo-location, financial information, health information, children’s information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the content of communications.

“Including web browsing history, app usage history and communications content in the sensitive category is why this regulation is so important,” said Simpson. “Now we must extend this fundamental principle to cover the rest of the Internet to give us control over how data hungry corporate giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter use our personal information.”

While the regulations passed today did not address concerns about mandatory arbitration requirements in communication services contracts, Wheeler said the Commission will proceed with a rulemaking in February 2017 to address the issue.

“Consumer Watchdog looks forward to working with the Commission as they enact a rule that would preserve consumers’ access to legal redress, including class action suits,” said Simpson.

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Google Raises 3rd Quarter Lobbying 4.2 Percent to $3.81 Million But Spending Falls Behind AT&T’s $4.11 Million; Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook Top $2 Million

SANTA MONICA, CA – Google increased its 2016 third-quarter federal lobbying spending 4.2 percent to $3.81 million from $3.65 million in the comparable 2015 period, but fell to second place in lobbying expenditures among 16 technology and communications companies tracked by Consumer Watchdog.

AT&T took the lead as its spending soared more than $1 million in 2016’s third quarter to $4.11 million, a 41.7 percent increase from $2.90 million in the third quarter of 2015. In the 2014 period the telecommunications giant spent percent $3.47 million.

Lobbying disclosure reports filed last week with the Clerk of the House of Representatives showed that in addition to Google and AT&T seven other companies tracked by the nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group increased their spending.

View the lobbying disclosure forms here: http://disclosures.house.gov/ld/ldsearch.aspx

Oracle, which had been spending at record levels for the company, cut its lobbying expenditures by 19.0 percent to $2.01 million in 2016 from a record $2.48 million in the third quarter of 2015, the disclosure records showed.

However, Amazon posted a substantial gain in outlays, increasing its lobbying spending 34.1 percent to $2.71 million in 2016 from $2.02 million in the third quarter of 2015. It had spent $1.18 million on lobbying in the third quarter of 2014.

“Nine of the 16 tech and communication companies tracked by Consumer Watchdog spent more than $2 million on lobbying in the third quarter once again demonstrating how our democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “Washington is all about the money.”

Facebook spent $2.20 million in the third quarter of 2016, a decrease of 15.1 percent from $2.59 million in the third quarter of 2015. The social networking company spent $2.45 million in 2014.

Microsoft, which used to lead the tech lobbying industry expenditures, also topped the $2 million level in the third quarter, spending $2.22 million in 2016, an increase of 17.5 percent from $1.89 million in 2015. That compares with $1.66 million in the third quarter of 2014.

Here are the 2016 third-quarter lobbying amounts for the five other tech firms:
— Apple spent $1.07 million, a 9.2 percent increase from $980,000 in 2015.
— Cisco Systems spent $640,000, a 9.9 percent decrease from $710,000 in 2015.
— IBM spent $870,000, a 1.2 increase from $860,000 in 2015.
— Intel spent $870,925, a 17.8 percent decrease from $1.06 million in 2015.
— Yahoo spent $600,000 a 13 percent decrease $690,000, in 2015.

Here are 2016 third-quarter lobbying expenditures for three other telecommunications companies:
— Sprint spent $574,424, a 19.5 percent decrease from $713,843 in 2015.
— T-Mobile spent $2.17 million, a 58.4 percent increase from $1.37 million in 2015.
— Verizon spent $2.18 million, a 12.1 percent decrease from $2.48 million in 2015.

Here are 2016 third-quarter lobbying expenditures for two cable companies:
— Comcast spent $3.41 million, a 4.3 percent increase from $3.27 million in 2015.
— Charter Communications spent $1.99 million, a 103 percent increase from $980,000 in 2015. Consumer Watchdog used to track Time Warner Cable’s lobbying spending. The company spent $1.65 million in 2015 and $1.80 million in 2014. It has been acquired Charter Communications.

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Robot Car Technology Requires Thorough Testing, Enforceable Safety Standards, Auto Safety Advocates Tell NHTSA Chief

Google Continues To Lead Pack In Federal Lobbying Expenditures As Most Tech Firms Cut Outlays; Amazon, Oracle Set New Records In Second Quarter Spending

WASHINGTON — Google trimmed its spending on federal lobbying in the second quarter of 2016 by 8.2 percent from the year before to $4.24 million, according to disclosure forms just filed with the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, but still significantly outspent other tech and communications giants.

Google spent $4.62 million, million on federal lobbying in the second quarter of 2015 and $3.8 million in the first quarter of 2016.

Thirteen of the 16 tech and communications companies tracked by Consumer Watchdog also trimmed the lobbying expenditures in the quarter.  Three companies  increased their outlays as Amazon and Oracle set records in their efforts to influence policymakers during the second quarter.

Amazon’s spending on lobbying increased 39.5 percent to a record $3 million in the second quarter of 2016 from $2.15 million in the comparable 2015 period. Oracle spent $1.92 million in 2016, a record and 11 percent increase from $1.73 million in 2015.

“There were cutbacks, but these companies continued to spend massive amounts demonstrating how policymaking is now about who has the big bucks rather than who has the big ideas,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “These figures don’t include ‘soft-lobbying’ where companies fund think tanks and researchers to further their agendas.”

Facebook spent $2.19 million in the second quarter of 2016, a 19.7 percent decrease from $2.69 million in the second quarter of 2014.

Microsoft, which used to lead tech companies in the amount spent on lobbying, trimmed its expenditures again. It spent $2.07 million in the second quarter of 2016 compared $2.24 million in the second quarter of 2015, a 7.5 percent decrease.

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

Here are the second quarter lobbying amounts for five other tech firms:
— Apple spent $1.12 million in 2016 a 8.9 percent decrease from $1.23 million in 2015.
— Cisco spent $460,00 in 2016, a 13.2 percent decrease from $530,00 in 2015.
— IBM spent $1.52 million in 2016, a 16 percent decrease from $1.81 million in 2015.
— Intel spent  $1.07 million in 2016, a 17.1 percent decrease from $1.29 million in 2015.
— Yahoo spent $600,000 in 2016, a decrease of 18.6 percent from $730,000 in 2015.

Here are second quarter lobbying expenditures for four telecommunications companies:
— AT&T spent  $4.07 million in 2016, a 0.7 decrease from $4.10 million in 2015.
— Sprint spent $577,534 in 2016, a 22.8 percent decrease from $747,696 in 2015.
— T-Mobile spent $2.11 million in 2016, an increase of 30.2 percent rom $1.62 million in 2015.
— Verizon spent $1.83 million in 2016, a 40.6 percent decrease from $3.08 million in 2015.

Here are lobbying expenditures for two cable companies:
— Comcast spent $3.38 million in 2016, an 11.1 percent decrease from  $3.8 million in 2015.
— Time Warner Cable spent $980,000 in 2016, a 38.8 percent decrease from $1.60 million in 2015.

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Consumer Advocates Demand Federal Agency Act on Auto Safety Petition

Santa Monica, CA — A backroom deal by the federal agency responsible for auto safety to allow automakers to avoid following federal safety rules is unlawful and will lead to more deaths and injuries, three top consumer advocates said today.  They urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to grant the formal petition the advocates filed in January to require automakers to make advanced safety technologies standard equipment on all cars and light trucks.

The January 2016 petition by Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety and Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA Administrator and now President Emeritus of Public Citizen, asked the agency to require Automatic Emergency Braking, a set of three new technologies to prevent collisions, as standard equipment. But in March, NHTSA announced that it had reached a secret agreement with twenty automakers allowing them to roll out weakened versions of the technology on a “voluntary” basis over a ten year period, evading formal federal safety protections.

The groups said “Americans will pay a heavy toll in deaths and injuries” for NHTSA’s “abdication of its regulatory responsibilities,” calling it “unprecedented in the history of the agency.”

NHTSA was required by law to respond to the Petition by May 12. The agency missed that deadline.

Agency on a Collision Course with Consumers

Consumer advocates were incredulous that federal safety officials would depart from the agency’s mission of independent regulation of the auto industry, particularly given recent auto safety scandals and the challenges posed by Google and other high-tech companies pushing to put robot cars on the road, “which pose independent and unprecedented social as well as safety concerns,” according to the Petition.

“NHTSA was established by Congress in 1966, after extensive hearings and evaluation, based on which lawmakers concluded that, ‘The promotion of motor vehicle safety through voluntary standards has largely failed. The unconditional imposition of mandatory standards at the earliest practicable date is the only course commensurate with seriously reducing the highway death and injury toll,’” the advocates point out.

The letter states:

Recent years have seen a record number of vehicle recalls, serious safety scandals, including defective GM ignition switches, Takata airbags and unintended acceleration by Toyotas; and the Volkswagen and Hyundai fuel economy scandals. We had hoped NHTSA would recognize that complying with the requirements of the rulemaking process, with its guarantees of science-based decision-making, due process and disclosure, is the only way to assure public confidence in the agency’s actions.

The Petition noted that making the safety technologies standard equipment is the only way to ensure that the technologies are rapidly and uniformly deployed and “that all motorists are protected by available safety technologies, not just those in higher income brackets.”

About the AEB Technologies

Automatic Emergency Braking consists of a suite of three technologies:

• Forward Collision Warning alerts a motorist (via audio or visual signals) that a collision with a car in front is imminent.

• Crash Imminent Braking intervenes when the driver does not respond to the Forward Collision Warning; it automatically applies the brakes to prevent a collision or reduce the vehicle’s speed at impact.

• Dynamic Brake Support applies supplemental braking when the braking applied by the driver is insufficient to avoid a collision.

NHTSA has heavily researched AEB system and established strong AEB standards that govern the federal government’s car rating system. But the “Memorandum of Understanding” announced by NHTSA in March says automakers will pledge to implement much weaker versions. Neither NHTSA nor consumers may challenge the automakers’ violation of their pledges, nor would NHTSA have authority to recall cars with defects in the technologies.

The letter to NHTSA is available here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltr_nhtsa_re_aeb_petition5-23-16.pdf

The January 13, 2016 Petition is available here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/consumer-advocates-ask-auto-safety-agency-make-new-technologies-standard-equipment-urge-

Consumer Watchdog’s letter to NHTSA urging the agency to proceed with caution on driverless autonomous vehicles – robot cars – is available here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/google%E2%80%99s-proposal-%E2%80%9Cfast-track%E2%80%9D-approval-driverless-cars-threat-public-safety-consumer-wa

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Consumer Watchdog Calls On Top US Transportation Chiefs Not To Work For Self-Driving Car Industry; Four Former NHTSA Officials Now Lobby For Robot Carmakers

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today called on Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind to “slam the revolving door” with the robot car industry shut with a written commitment that they will not work as an employee or consultant to developers of self-driving autonomous vehicles for at least seven years after leaving their respective positions.

“Slam shut the revolving door that has become the reward for taking a top job at NHTSA. Failure to do so will leave the public with the troubling perception that the revised autonomous vehicle policies expected to be released in July have been crafted with an eye focused on your future employment prospects rather than on the public interest,” wrote John M. Simpson Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director in a letter to the two officials.

At least four former high-ranking NHTSA officials are now working on behalf of Google’s self-driving car project.

Foxx and Rosekind have been pressing to deploy autonomous vehicle technology rapidly.  Last December the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that the autonomous technology controlling a self-driving robot car could be considered to be the driver. In January Foxx said NHTSA would update its autonomous vehicle policy in six months. Foxx encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of NHTSA’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter said the importance of this commitment not to work for industry was driven home on the eve of NHTSA’s second public meeting on autonomous vehicle technology. That’s when it was revealed that former NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland would serve as counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, comprised of Google, Lyft, Uber, Ford and Volvo.

Ron Medford, former Deputy Director of NHTSA, is Director of Safety for Google’s self-driving car program. Chan Lieu, who served as Director of Government Affairs, Policy and Strategic Planning at NHTSA, is at Venable, LLP, like Strickland and lobbies for Google. Daniel Smith, who ran NHTSA’s Office of Vehicle Safety, is now a Google consultant.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrfoxxrosekind051816.pdf

NHTSA’s revolving door is not a recent development, Consumer Watchdog noted.  From 1984 to 2010, according to USA Today, the Department of Transportation inspector general found that 40 officials left the safety agency for jobs with automakers, their law firms or auto industry consultants. The group included four administrators, two deputy administrators, seven associate administrators and two chief counsels. In addition, 23 auto industry executives moved into top NHTSA jobs from 1999 to 2010.

“The practice has become so commonplace that potential NHTSA employees must anticipate that a golden parachute will await them when they jump ship to land at an automotive or technology company,” Simpson wrote. “Is it any wonder that the public doubts you when you claim that safety is your top priority and that you are acting in our interest?”

Consumer Watchdog supports autonomous vehicle policies, such as those proposed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, that require a driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of assuming control of the self-driving robot technology when something goes wrong. Data from self-driving car developers show this is a key safety provision, Consumer Watchdog said.  For example in a required disengagement report filed with the California DMV Google said its self-driving technology failed 341 times during the reporting period.  The technology turned over control to the test driver 272 times because it couldn’t cope and the test driver intervened 69 times because they felt the situation was dangerous.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter concluded:

“You have repeatedly said that safety is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top priority. However, whatever autonomous polices emerge in July, this much is certain: Unless you lead by example and repudiate the revolving door, any policy you produce will be viewed with skepticism if not downright distrust as a boon for the industry.

“You both are in a unique position to both enhance NHTSA’s standing and to demonstrate that the new autonomous vehicle polices to be issued in July are truly focused on the public’s safety and not your future employment prospects.  Slam the revolving door with industry shut. Consumer Watchdog calls on you both to pledge not to take employment with, serve as a consultant to, or lawyer for a company developing self-driving car technology for seven years.”

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Consumer Watchdog Says NHTSA Must Protect Safety, Require Steering Wheel, Driver In Robot Car Guidelines; Gives Google Self-Driving Car Project Execs Steering Wheel To Make Point

STANFORD, CA  – Consumer Watchdog today called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require a steering wheel, brake and accelerator so a human driver can take control of a self-driving robot car when safety demands it in the guidelines it is developing on automated vehicle technology.

To dramatize the point, Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson gave executives from Google’s self-driving car project a steering wheel. Simpson and a Google representative spoke at a NHTSA public meeting today about automated vehicle technology. Simpson, the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group’s Privacy Project Director, also gave them ten questions about Google’s self-driving project.

“Deploying a vehicle today without a steering wheel, brake, accelerator and a human driver capable of intervening when something goes wrong is not merely foolhardy.  It is dangerous,” said Simpson.

Google wants a self-driving robot car without a steering wheel or brake with no way for a human driver to take control.

NHTSA’s meeting came the day after the announcement of a new lobbying group including Google, Lyft, Uber, Ford and Volvo called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

“If these manufactures genuinely cared about Safer Streets, rather than pushing self-serving laws and regulations they would be transparent about what they’re doing on our public roads,” said Simpson.  “When something goes wrong, the technical details should be released to the public. It’s not happening.”

He noted that a Google robot car crashed into a bus on Valentine’s Day.  Video recorded on the bus by the transit company was released to the public.  Google says it has no plans to release its video or technical data.

Read Simpson’s comments to NHTSA here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/nhtsatestimony042716.pdf

The need to require a driver behind the wheel is obvious after a review of the results from seven companies that have been testing self-driving cars in California since September 2014, Consumer Watchdog said.

Under California’s self-driving car testing requirements, these companies were required to file “disengagement reports” explaining when a test driver had to take control. The reports show that the cars are not always capable of “seeing” pedestrians and cyclists, traffic lights, low-hanging branches, or the proximity of parked cars, suggesting too great a risk of serious accidents involving pedestrians and other cars. The cars also are not capable of reacting to reckless behavior of others on the road quickly enough to avoid the consequences, the reports showed.

“Google, which logged 424,331 ‘self-driving’ miles over the 15-month reporting period, said a human driver took over 341 times, an average of 22.7 times a month,” Simpson said. “The robot car technology failed 272 times and ceded control to the human driver; the driver felt compelled to intervene and take control 69 times.”

“What the disengagement reports show is that there are many everyday routine traffic situations with which the self-driving robot cars simply can’t cope,” said Simpson. “It’s imperative that a human be behind the wheel capable of taking control when necessary. Self-driving robot cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention.”

Questions for Google

1. We understand the self-driving car cannot currently handle many common occurrences on the road, including heavy rain or snow, hand signals from a traffic cop, or gestures to communicate from other drivers. Will Google publish a complete list of real-life situations the cars cannot yet understand, and how you intend to deal with them?

2. What does Google envision happening if the computer “driver” suddenly goes offline with a passenger in the car, if the car has no steering wheel or pedals and the passenger cannot steer or stop the vehicle?

3.  Your programmers will literally make life and death decisions as they write the vehicles’ algorithms.   Will Google agree to publish its software algorithms, including how the company’s “artificial car intelligence” will be programmed to decide what happens in the event of a potential collision? For instance, will your robot car prioritize the safety of the occupants of the vehicle or pedestrians it encounters?

4. Will Google publish all video from the car and technical data such as radar and lidar reports associated with accidents or other anomalous situations? If not, why not?

5. Will Google publish all data in its possession that discusses, or makes projections concerning, the safety of driverless vehicles?

6. Do you expect one of your robot cars to be involved in a fatal crash? If your robot car causes the crash, how would you be held accountable?

7. How will Google prove that self-driving cars are safer than today’s vehicles?

8.  Will Google agree not to store, market, sell, or transfer the data gathered by the self-driving car, or utilize it for any purpose other than navigating the vehicle?

9. NHTSA’s performance standards are actually designed to promote new life-saving technology.  Why is Google trying to circumvent them? Will Google provide all data in its possession concerning the length of time required to comply with the current NHTSA safety process?

10. Does Google have the technology to prevent malicious hackers from seizing control of a driverless vehicle or any of its systems?

Simpson’s comments to NHTSA concluded:

“NHTSA officials have repeatedly said safety is the agency’s top priority.  You must not allow your judgment to by swayed by rosy, self-serving statements from companies like Google about the capabilities of their self-driving robot cars.  NHTSA has said that autonomous vehicle technology is an area of rapid change that requires you to remain ‘flexible and adaptable.’  Please ensure that flexibility does not cause you to lose sight of the need to put safety first. Innovation will thrive hand-in-hand with thoughtful, deliberate regulation.  Your guidance for the states on autonomous vehicles must continue to require a human driver who can intervene with a steering wheel, brake and accelerator when necessary.”

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Google Slashes Lobbying Outlay 25.5 Percent To $3.80 Million As AT&T Leads Tech, Communications Group Spending With $4.48 Million; Facebook Spends $2.78 Million

WASHINGTON, DC — Google slashed spending on lobbying by 25.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016 to $3.80 million, while AT&T reported the highest lobbying outlay at $4.48 million among a group of 16 tech and communications companies monitored by Consumer Watchdog.

Google spent $5.10 million in the comparable 2015 period and AT&T’s spending was up 2.5 percent from $4.37 million in 2015, according to disclosure reports just filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Facebook, which has been increasing its Washington presence, spent $2.78 million, an increase of 13.9 percent from $2.44 million, in the comparable 2015 quarter. Microsoft also topped $2 million in lobbying spending. It reported expenditures of $2.02 million, an increase of 6.9 percent from $1.89 million in 2015.

Lobbying spending increased 39 percent at Amazon, to $ 2.65 million from $1.91 million in the first quarter of 2015, the disclosure records show. It was the fourth straight quarter that its spending topped $2 million.

Seven of the companies spent more than $2 million on lobbying, Consumer Watchdog noted. Twelve spent more than $1 million on lobbying in the first quarter.

“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.”

Check the House Clerk’s lobbying disclosure database here: http://disclosures.house.gov/ld/ldsearch.aspx#

Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, monitors the lobbying disclosure reports of 16 tech and communications companies. Half of the 16 companies increased their first quarter 2016 spending on lobbying and half decreased spending from 2015 first-quarter levels.

Here are lobbying expenditures for the first quarter of 2016 for six other tech companies:

— Apple spent $1.13 million, an 8.9 percent decrease from $1.24 million.

— Cisco spent $420,000, a 30 percent decrease from $600,000.

— IBM spent  $830,000 a 17 percent decrease from $1 million.

— Intel spent  $1.23 million, an increase of 5.1 percent from $1.17 million.

— Oracle spent $1.72 million, an increase of 33.3 percent from $1.29 million.

— Yahoo! spent $690,000, a 5.5 percent decrease from $730,000.

Here are lobbying expenses for three other communications companies in the first quarter 2016:

— Sprint spent $523,041 a decrease of 28.8 percent from $734,927.

— T-Mobile spent $1.80 million, an increase of 52.5 percent from  $1.18 million.

— Verizon spent $3.59 million, an increase of 7.2 percent $3.35 million.

Here are 2016 first quarter lobbying expenditures for two cable companies:

— Comcast spent $3.72 million, a 19.5 percent decrease from $4.62 million.

— Time Warner Cable spent  $1.5 million, an 11.8 percent decrease from $1.7 million.

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Consumer Watchdog Urges Federal Trade Commission To File Antitrust Charges Against Google Over Android Operating System Abuses

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today urged the Federal Trade Commission to file antitrust charges against Alphabet Inc.’s Google for using its monopoly power over the Android operating system to stifle competition and unfairly drive consumers to its own services.

The call from the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group came after the European Commission filed formal charges in its Android antitrust case against the Internet giant.  The Commission said in its statement of objections that its preliminary view was “that the company has, in breach of EU antitrust rules, abused its dominant position by imposing restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators.”

“Google engages in exactly the same anti-competitive, unfair and abusive practices in the United States,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “Our antitrust enforcers need to step up and do their job instead of letting the Europeans do it for them.”

Shortly after the European investigation was opened last April there were news reports that the FTC was also looking in Google’s practices with the Android operating system.

About 80 percent of mobile devices in the world operate on the open-source Android system, which Google licenses to manufacturers. The Commission said Google violates antitrust law by:

•    requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and Google’s Chrome browser and requiring them to set Google Search as default search service on their devices, as a condition to license certain Google proprietary apps;
•    preventing manufacturers from selling smart mobile devices running on competing operating systems based on the Android open source code;
•    giving financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-install Google Search on their devices.

The FTC investigated Google’s search practices, but closed that case in 2013. The European Commission is pressing forward with its search case. Consumer Watchdog noted Google spent $16.66 million on federal lobbying in 2015.

“Google is well connected at the highest levels of government and throws its money around,” said Simpson. “But our antitrust enforcers can’t let that sway them.  They’ve got the facts and need to act.”

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said: “A competitive mobile internet sector is increasingly important for consumers and businesses in Europe. Based on our investigation thus far, we believe that Google’s behavior denies consumers a wider choice of mobile apps and services and stands in the way of innovation by other players, in breach of EU antitrust rules. These rules apply to all companies active in Europe. Google now has the opportunity to reply to the Commission’s concerns.”

View the European Commission’s news release here: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-1492_en.htm

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After Google Car Crashes Into Bus, Consumer Groups Call For Transparency, Public Involvement As DOT, NHTSA Develop Self-Driving Car Policies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the wake of a Google self-driving car crashing into a bus, a coalition of consumer groups called on the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “to commit to maximum transparency and public involvement” as they develop policy and safety standards covering autonomous self-driving vehicles.

In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind the groups wrote:

“While autonomous technologies may offer great benefits in the future, it is imperative that NHTSA continue to put safety first as the technologies develop. The best way to demonstrate your commitment to safety is a completely open, transparent process with the maximum public involvement.”

On Monday, Google filed a report with the California Department of Motor Vehicles indicating a self-driving car, while driving in autonomous mode, had struck a transit bus in Mountain View, California, while attempting to merge into its lane.

Read the letter from Consumer Watchdog, Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, and former NHTSA Administrator and Public Citizen President Emeritus Joan Claybrook here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrdotnhtsa030316.pdf

“Thus far, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have not held a single public proceeding focused on autonomous vehicles,” the letter said.

The groups asked Foxx and Rosekind to:

“– Open an easily accessible public docket for all documents and comments related to autonomous vehicle technology and policy, including any company’s petition for exemption from safety regulations.

“– Hold a public meeting involving all stakeholders as soon as possible to assist in developing a model state policy and to consider other policy issues surrounding self-driving vehicles. The meeting should be held well before the model state policy is issued in order to inform the model policy.

“– Meet with consumer and safety advocates as soon as is convenient so that we can express some of our concerns as self-driving policies are developed.”

The letter came shortly after the report of a Google autonomous self-driving car sideswiping a bus.  It cited Google’s so called “disengagement report” filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles reporting that a human driver had to take control of test vehicles over 341 times, an average of 22.7 times a month.  The car technology failed 272 times and ceded control to the human driver; the driver felt compelled to intervene and take control 69 times.

“These real-world results show there are many everyday routine traffic situations that cars simply can’t cope with yet,” the letter said. “NHTSA’s model policy must reflect this simple reality: Self-driving vehicles aren’t ready to safely manage many routine traffic situations without human intervention.”

The letter concluded:

“Your updated autonomous vehicle policy statement pledges that ‘the North Star for DOT and NHTSA remains safety.’  The statement also says that autonomous vehicle technology is an area of rapid change that requires you to remain ‘flexible and adaptable.’   Please ensure that flexibility does not cause you to lose sight of the need to put safety first. Innovation will thrive hand-in-hand with thoughtful regulation.  You can get there with maximum transparency and public involvement.”

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Google Robot Car Sideswipes Bus On Valentines Day; Consumer Watchdog Reiterates Call For Police Investigation, Release of Video and Technical Data Tied To Crash

SANTA MONICA, CA – A Valentine’s Day crash in which a self-driving Google robot car sideswiped a bus demonstrates the need for a police investigation and the release of technical data and video associated with the crash, Consumer Watchdog said today.

Google’s account of the crash was posted on the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ website today and the self-driving robot car appears to have been at fault.

Consumer Watchdog petitioned the DMV on Sept. 24, 2015 calling for every robot car accident to be investigated by police and accompanied by a release of technical and video data associated with the crash  The nonprofit nonpartisan group has advocated for DMV rules, currently in draft form, that require robot cars to have the ability for a human driver to take over. Google has opposed those rules.

“This accident is more proof that robot car technology is not ready for auto pilot and a human driver needs to be able to takeover when something goes wrong. Google’s one-paragraph account of what caused it to drive into a bus is not good enough to inform new rules of the road for robot cars,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director.  “The police should be called to the site of every robot car crash and all technical data and video associated with the accident must be made public.”

According to the report on the DMV’s website, the car had moved into the right side of the lane at a traffic light to make a right turn on red, but was blocked by sandbags.  The traffic light turned green and several cars started through the intersection.  The Google robot car moved back toward the center of the lane to go around the sand bags and sideswiped the bus, which was passing, the report says.

View Google’s accident report to the DMV here: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/wcm/connect/3946fbb8-e04e-4d52-8f80-b33948df34b2/Google+Auto+LLC+02.14.16.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Consumer Watchdog said that the crash was further proof that Google’s self-driving robot cars cannot reliably cope with everyday ordinary driving situations.   In early January Google released a DMV-required “disengagement report” revealing that the self-driving technology failed 341 times in 15 months.  The autonomous robot technology turned over control 272 times and the test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times.

The California DMV’s proposed regulations for the deployment of self-driving vehicles require that there be a driver be wheel capable of taking control.  The National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration has recently said that a self-driving system can count as the driver of an autonomous robot car.

Consumer Watchdog called on Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind to put safety first and require a driver behind the wheel as national self-driving car policies are developed.

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