EPIC Pushes FTC To Get In The Ring With Google

Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    EPIC has cracked the whip on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, demanding that it stand up and fight Google over the search giant’s latest privacy policy changes. EPIC’s lawsuit alleges that Google’s changes violate the terms of an agreement it has with the FTC, and that the FTC must fight to enforce that agreement. However, not all privacy advocates agree with EPIC’s assessment of the situation.

    The fallout from changes Google plans to make to its privacy policies and terms of service continues, with consumer advocacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) suing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the issue.

    EPIC is seeking injunctive and other relief to force the FTC to enforce a consent order it issued in October against Google.

    That order was issued over the Internet giant’s introduction of Google Buzz, an early attempt to bring a social dimension to Gmail.

    The order requires Google to refrain from misrepresenting its privacy policies and get express user consent before undertaking new or additional sharing of user data with any third party, among other things.

    EPIC filed the suit against the FTC in a federal district court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

    “The FTC takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated,” FTC spokesperson Cecelia Prewett told the E-Commerce Times.

    “We’re happy to engage in constructive conversations about our updated privacy policy, but EPIC is wrong on the facts and the law,” Google spokesperson Eitan Bencuya said.

    EPIC did not respond to our request for further details.

    The Gist of EPIC’s Complaint

    On March 1, Google plans to consolidate more than 60 of the privacy policies pertaining to the various services it offers. It will also change its terms of service so that it can combine data on users across all of its services.

    EPIC considers this to be an imminent violation of the consent order Google signed with the FTC over Buzz. It contends that the FTC has failed to take any action over this issue.

    A House Divided

    Other consumer advocacy groups are divided over EPIC’s move.

    “We welcome and support EPIC’s suit,” John Simpson, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, told the E-Commerce Times.

    “We called on the FTC to determine whether Google’s arrogant, unilateral action violated the Buzz consent agreement,” Simpson continued. “I think it’s clear that it does.”

    However, “I’m not entirely sure that I agree with their conclusion that [Google’s planned changes] violate the settlement,” Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology‘s consumer privacy project, told the E-Commerce Times.

    Brookman doesn’t think the consolidation of user data is governed by the FTC consent order because it doesn’t currently involve any sharing with third parties. “The sharing with third parties was the focus of the settlement … not a lot has changed in their policy from the actual perspective,” he said.

    “We’re keeping your private information private,” Google’s Bencuya told the E-Commerce Times. “We’re not changing how any personal information is shared outside of Google.”

    Toeing the Line

    The FTC consent order also requires Google to establish, implement and maintain a comprehensive privacy program which must be reviewed by a qualified, objective third-party assessor for the next 20 years.

    “We’ve created a world-class privacy compliance program, as we’re confident our third-party assessments will demonstrate,” Bencuya said.

    “Google’s done by far their greatest effort at complying with the order,” the CDT’s Brookman remarked. For example, it “announced an opt-in program to let Google see everything from Chrome.”

    This is the Google Screenwise project, under which users of the company’s Chrome browser will get up to US$25 in Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) gift cards if they add a browser extension that will let Google track the websites they visit and how they use them.

    “Paid opt-in — you’re not going to get a better deal than that,” Brookman said. “I would like the terms to be a little clearer, but on the face of it, the value proposition is legitimate.”

    Still, “Chrome does look a lot more into what you’re doing than AdClick or other Google services,” Brookman warned. “If [Google] starts using all my data from Chrome or Android, I’ll have a lot more concerns [about privacy].”

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