Google’s Failure To Offer ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ In United States Is Unfair And Deceptive, Consumer Watchdog Tells Federal Trade Commission In Complaint

SANTA MONICA, CA — Google’s failure to offer U.S. users the ability to request the removal of search engine links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive is an “unfair and deceptive” practice, Consumer Watchdog said in a complaint today to the Federal Trade Commission.

In Europe where the Internet giant has removed 41.3 percent of such links when requested, this is known as the “Right To Be Forgotten.” More accurately this ability is the “Right To Relevancy” or “Privacy By Obscurity” for the digital age, said Consumer Watchdog.

“Google’s refusal to consider such requests in the United States is both unfair and deceptive, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “We urge the Commission to investigate and act.”

Google’s recent announcement that it would honor requests to remove links from its search results to so-called “revenge porn” – nude or explicit photos posted without the subject’s consent – shows that Google could easily honor Right To Be Forgotten requests in the U.S., Simpson said.

“The Internet giant aggressively and repeatedly holds itself out to users as being deeply committed to privacy. Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine link from one’s name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy) is an important privacy option,” Consumer Watchdog’s complaint said. “Though Google claims it is concerned about users’ privacy, it does not offer U.S. users the ability to make such a basic request.  Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy and not offering a key privacy tool – indeed one offered all across Europe – is deceptive behavior.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s complaint here:  http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrftcrtbf070715.pdf

Not offering Americans a basic privacy tool, while providing it to millions of users across Europe, is also an unfair practice, the complaint said. Acts or practices by a business are unfair under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act if they cause or are likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that consumers cannot reasonably avoid themselves and that is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.

The complaint then listed some examples of people who have been harmed by Google’s refusal to honor Right of Relevancy or Right To Be Forgotten removal requests in the United States. Clearly there is no countervailing benefit in continuing to link to the items from search results, Consumer Watchdog said.  Here are the examples:

•    A young California woman was decapitated in a tragic auto accident.  Photos from the grisly accident scene were wrongfully leaked by California Highway Patrol officers and posted to the Internet.  A search on her name still returns the horrible photographs.

•    A guidance counselor was fired in 2012 after modeling photos from 20 years prior surfaced. She was a lingerie model between the ages of 18-20, and she had disclosed her prior career when she first was hired. Despite this, when a photo was found online and shown to the principal of her school, she was fired.

•    A Florida doctor locked herself in the bedroom to hide from her violent boyfriend. He used a steak knife to jimmy the door open. As he entered she scratched his chest with her fingernails. When the police arrived, both she and her boyfriend were arrested, her boyfriend having claimed the scratches on his chest were from the knife. She was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and battery domestic violence. The charges against were soon dropped. Soon after her photo showed up on a mug shot website. Anyone who Googled her name found this information as one of the top results. The mug-shot websites demanded hundreds of dollars to remove the photos.

Google’s own experience in Europe demonstrates that Right To Be Forgotten removal requests can be managed in a way that is fair and not burdensome for Google.  Since Google began considering Right To Be Forgotten requests last May, Google has received 274,462 removal requests. The Internet giant evaluated 997,008 URLs for removal from its search results, and has dropped 348,794 or 41.3 percent.  It declined to remove 495,673, or 58.7 percent of the links.

It is important to understand what the Right To Be Forgotten as implemented by Google in Europe does and does not do, Consumer Watchdog said. “It is not censorship.  It does not remove content from the Web.  It simply allows a person to request that links from their name to data that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive be removed from search results. Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request,” the complaint said.

The Consumer Watchdog complaint cited examples given by Google of when removal requests were granted and when they were denied in Europe:

•    A woman in Italy requested that Google remove a decades-old article about her husband’s murder, which included her name. The page was removed from search results for her name.

•    A Swiss financial professional asked Google to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    A rape victim in Germany asked Google to remove a link to a newspaper article about the crime. The page was removed from search results for the individual’s name.

•    Google received multiple requests from an Italian asking Google to remove 20 links to recent articles about his arrest for financial crimes committed in a professional capacity. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    A media professional in the UK asked Google to remove four links to articles reporting on embarrassing content he posted to the Internet.  Google did not remove the pages from search results.

•    An Italian crime victim asked Google to remove three links that discuss the crime, which occurred decades ago. The pages were removed from search results for her name.

•    In the UK a man asked Google to remove links to articles on the Internet that reference his dismissal for sexual crimes committed on the job. Google did not remove the pages from search results.

Consumer Watchdog’s complaint explained what the Right to Be Forgotten means in practical terms:

“Before the Internet if someone did something foolish when they were young – and most of us probably did – there might well be a public record of what happened. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things someone did in their youth.  They would be judged mostly based on their current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant.  If someone else were highly motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up a person’s past.  Usually this required effort and motivation.  For a reporter, for instance, this sort of deep digging was routine with, say, candidates for public office, not for Joe Blow citizen.  This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity.  The Digital Age has ended that. Everything – all our digital footprints – are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.”

The complaint concluded:

“Now, the Right To Be Forgotten is simply restoring the balance in Europe that is provided with Privacy By Obscurity.  The right simply allows a European to identify links that are no longer relevant and ask for their removal.  Removal won’t always happen, but the balance Google appears to have found between privacy and the public’s right to know demonstrates Google can make the Right to Be Forgotten work in the United States.  The Internet giant’s current approach of refusing to do so while claiming to protect users’ privacy is both unfair and deceptive. Consumer Watchdog calls on the Commission to act.”

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California DMV Changes Policy; Now Will Release Robot Car Accident Reports

SANTA MONICA, CA – The California Department of Motor Vehicles has reversed its policy and today said it would release accident reports about crashes involving self-driving cars that are being tested on public roads.

“It took too long, but the DMV is now getting right,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The robot cars are being tested on public roads and people have a right to know as much as possible about what goes wrong.”

Personal information like the drivers’ names, the car’s VIN number and the insurer is redacted. In one report filed by Delphi, fault was shown to be determined in a police collision report cited in the document. The other reports involving Google’s vehicles, only gave the company’s synopsis of the crash.

View the six robot car crash reports filed since last September when the DMV began requiring them: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/av_accident_reports_061715.pdf

The DMV also requires an annual report of the circumstances surround any time the robot technology was disengaged and control was assumed by the test driver. Noting that at least one Google accident report said the test driver assumed control, Consumer Watchdog called for full disclosure of the disengagement reports.

“Knowing why the driver took over and how long it took to do so is essential,” said Simpson.

Consumer Watchdog learned that there had been accidents involving Google’s robot cars when the nonprofit nonpartisan public interest group filed a Public Records Act request in March with the DMV seeking communications between Google and the department. However, the DMV then said it treats driverless car accident reports confidentially and would not release them.

After the Associated Press reported there had been crashes with Google and Delphi cars, Google acknowledged its vehicles had been involved in 11 since testing began. The number of Google crashes now stands at 13.

At Google’s annual shareholders meeting earlier this month, Simpson called on Google to release the official accident reports. Two days after the meeting Google began releasing monthly reports about robot car testing that included a synopsis of crashes.

“The official DMV reports offer greater insight with specific information on such things as the vehicle make, the time and date of the crash,” Simpson noted. “When you remember that Google wants to offer a robot car without a steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator, it’s imperative we know as much as possible about what goes wrong.”

In releasing the reports Roger J. Sato, Senior Staff Counsel said:

“DMV initially declined to release these reports based on Vehicle Code provisions that require accident reports concerning traffic injuries or fatalities to remain confidential. After further review, DMV has determined that it is possible to release the factual information related to the autonomous vehicle reports, so long as the personal information of the drivers involved in the accidents and other information not disclosable by law is kept confidential.”

Google is testing the most robot cars on California’s roads. As of May 15, the most recent data provided by the DMV shows the Internet giant is testing 23 cars and has 180 drivers. Other companies testing self-driving vehicles on California highways are: VW/Audi, 3 cars, 30 drivers; Mercedes Benz, 3 cars, 12 drivers; Delphi 2 cars, 9 drivers; Tesla, 12 cars, 16 drivers; Bosch 2 cars, 12 drivers and Nissan 3 cars, 18 drivers. In all there were 48 vehicles being tested and 277 test drivers.

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Consumer Watchdog Asks FCC To Require Internet Companies To Honor Do Not Track

WASHINGTON, DC – Consumer Watchdog today petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to enact rules that would require Internet companies known as “edge providers”, such as Google and Facebook, to honor Do Not Track requests sent from a consumer’s web browser.

New rules protecting net neutrality and reclassifying broadband Internet access providers as common carriers that went into effect last Friday do not extend privacy protections to edge providers. Consumer Watchdog’s petition cites FCC authority under another law to take immediate action to protect consumer privacy if it finds broadband is not being deployed in a timely fashion.

Because the FCC has found that concerns about Internet privacy can hinder broadband deployment, rules to protect privacy, such as requiring companies to honor Do Not Track requests, are necessary to promote improved broadband use, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group said.

“The Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order reclassified broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, emphasizing the importance of protecting consumer privacy by finding ‘that if consumers have concerns about the privacy of their personal information, such concerns may restrain them from making full use of broadband Internet access services and the Internet, thereby lowering the likelihood of broadband adoption and decreasing consumer demand,”  the petition said.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s petition here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/fccdntpetiton061515.pdf

“Acting to ensure consumers’ privacy while they use the Internet is one of the immediate steps the Commission should take to bolster the rate of broadband adoption,” the petition said. “As the Commission has found previously, the protection of customers’ personal information may spur consumer demand for those services, in turn ‘driving demand for broadband connections, and consequently encouraging more broadband investment and deployment’ consistent with the goals of the 1996 Act.”

“Ensuring that ISPs respect their customers’ privacy is important, but privacy rules covering companies like Google and Facebook are also necessary if people are going to trust the Internet,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The FCC clearly has the authority it needs and must do everything it can to build that trust if it is to succeed in promoting timely broadband deployment.”

The new net neutrality rules, which apply Section 222 of the Communications Act to broadband Internet access providers like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T, will require the ISPs to protect consumers’ privacy, but don’t extend Section 222 privacy protections to the Internet edge providers.

In its petition, written by Simpson and Staff Attorney Laura Antonini, Consumer Watchdog said that the FCC has authority under Title I of the Communications Act to regulate Internet “information services,” and can require privacy protection without invoking Section 222. This is because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the Commission to report annually on whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” and to take “immediate action” if it is not.  Consumer Watchdog noted the 2015 report found that “broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

Consumer Watchdog’s petition noted that all four major web browsers, Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, have the capability to send a Do Not Track request. However, companies are under no obligation to honor it and most don’t.

Under Consumer Watchdog’s proposed rule an edge provider offering a first-party online service that received a Do Not Track request would be prohibited from selling, sharing, or otherwise transferring the personal information of the consumer to any other entity, including a third-party online service.

The proposed rule would also require edge providers offering a third-party online service to honor Do Not Track requests and not collect or store consumers’ personal data.

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Google Reveals Some Robot Car Crash Details After Repeated Calls From Consumer Watchdog; Public Interest Group Says More Accident Information Is Necessary

SANTA MONICA, CA – After repeated calls for disclosure from Consumer Watchdog, Google today said it would issue regular reports offering some details of crashes involving its driverless cars.  The public interest group said more details are still needed.

Google released its first of what it said would be monthly reports on a website dedicated to the driverless car project. Included in the report is a synopsis written by Google of the twelve accidents since it began testing the robot cars in 2009.

“We now know a few more details of what happened,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The problem is that it’s Google’s version and they want us to take their word for it.”

Consumer Watchdog said the Internet giant must release official accident reports that include not only the Internet giant’s version of what happened, but what the other drivers and any witnesses say.

Consumer Watchdog has repeatedly called on Google to release the official reports, most recently when Simpson confronted Google executives on the issue at the annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday.

Crash reports are essential to understanding how the robot cars interact with human drivers, which likely will be the biggest challenge the vehicles will face, Consumer Watchdog said.  In most of the crashes the Google robot cars were rear-ended.  That could mean that the vehicles tend to stop more quickly than human drivers expect.

Another interesting fact learned from the report was that in two of the crashes the human driver assumed control as it was happening. More details are necessary to understand what happens when human drivers take control.

“Google is dribbling out bits information in the hope to silence legitimate calls for full transparency,” said Simpson. “They are testing on public roads and the public has a right to know exactly what happened when something goes wrong.”

View a video of Simpson’s question at the shareholders meeting here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/video/john-simpson-asks-about-googles-driverless-car-safety-record-google-meeting

View Google’s May driverless car report here: https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/www.google.com/en/us/selfdrivingcar/files/reports/report-0515.pdf

View Consumer Watchdog’s video highlighting some of the safety and privacy concerns with driverless cars here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/robotcar

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Google May Release Robot Car Crash Reports, But Refuses Consumer Watchdog Challenge To Protect Privacy By Limiting Use of Data At Shareholder Meeting Today

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — Google founder Sergey Brin said he would be “open to” releasing accident reports about crashes involving its robot cars in response to a Consumer Watchdog challenge for transparency about the crashes today. However, Google executives rejected Consumer Watchdog’s call to protect privacy of driverless car users by limiting the use of data gathered by the cars to only operating the vehicles.

Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson, a Google shareholder, raised the questions about the privacy and safety issues involving Google’s driverless cars during the question-and-answer portion of Google’s annual shareholders’ meeting.

Simpson called on Google to release complete details of accidents involving its driverless cars – including all formal accident reports.

“A Google spokesman called the crashes minor and said Google’s cars weren’t at fault, of course that’s what any driver says when they’re in an accident, ‘oh it’s not my fault.’ But we have to take your word for it and don’t really know what happened because Google hasn’t released the actual accident reports,” said Simpson.  “Will you release the reports so the public knows what went wrong and will you commit to making all future accident reports public?”

Sergey Brin, who is leading up the autonomous car project, said, “It’s basically the summary we’ve already given you. I suppose we could give more detail, and we’re open to that.”

He went on to say: “It’s a description, you know, we write what happened, it’s basically the summary we’ve already given you.”

After the meeting Simpson said, “The accident reports are a starting point and contain details that Google has still refused to make public. We ask Mr. Brin to direct his staff to release those documents today. Then the public can judge whether we need more information to evaluate the safety of driverless cars.”

The Internet giant has acknowledged that its robot vehicles have been involved in 11 crashes since the company began testing them on public highways in California, yet has thus far made only generic descriptions of the crashes public.

Simpson also called on Google to protect the privacy of driverless car owners:

“Would you be willing to protect driverless car users’ privacy in the future and commit today to using the information gathered by driverless cars only for operating the vehicles and not for other purposes such as marketing?”

“I think we took the position it’s a little early to be drawing all those kinds of conclusions,” answered David Drummond, Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer. He went on to state that any restrictions, “Would in a lot of ways would reduce innovation and our ability to deliver a great consumer product.”

As the Legislature passed the California law authorizing driverless cars on the state’s public roads Google rebuffed an amendment that would have protected privacy by requiring that data gathered by a robot car could be used only for operating the vehicle and not for such things as marketing.

Google’s acknowledgement of crashes involving its robot cars came after Consumer Watchdog learned of accidents involving driverless cars after the group filed a Public Records Act request to the California Department of Motor Vehicles in March.  The DMV treats the accident reports confidentially. The public interest group is advocating that the DMV require that human drivers have the ability to take over control of the robot cars if necessary. Google wants a car with no steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator.

“Google wants to eliminate the most basic safeguard, a licensed driver able to take control, in its proposed driverless vehicles. This aim makes it even more important for the public to understand any accidents that occur involving Google vehicles during the testing phase,” said Simpson.

DMV rules also require companies testing driverless cars to report the details of all incidents when the robot technology was disengaged and the test driver had to assume control. Consumer Watchdog has called on Google to make the disengagement reports public as well.

“Driverless car technology is evolving and there are many situations Google’s robot cars cannot deal with.  People need to know that,” said Simpson.  Consumer Watchdog has produced a video using animation to visualize shortcomings in driverless car technology.

View the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_Gz6eSatM8&feature=youtu.be

View a video of the shareholders meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V14ZcyuiwbI
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Google Spends Record $5.47 Million On 1st Quarter Lobbying; Comcast Outlay Soars 50 Percent To $4.62 Million While Amazon Posts 130 Percent Increase To $1.91 Million

WASHINGTON, DC — Google spent a record $5.47 million on lobbying during the first quarter of 2015, an increase of 43 percent from $3.82 million in the comparable 2014 period, according to disclosures just filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Comcast, which is seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department for a merger with Time Warner Cable spent $4.62 million in the quarter, an increase of 50 percent from $3.09 million in the first quarter of 2014.  The two giants were the biggest lobbying spenders among 16 tech and communications companies monitored by Consumer Watchdog.

Lobbying spending soared 130 percent at Amazon, hitting $1.91 million in the first quarter of 2015, up from $830,000 a year earlier, the disclosure records show.

The Google and Comcast increases came as most other tech and communications companies slightly trimmed or held their lobbying costs flat, the House records show. Google’s second highest first-quarter spending was $5.03 million in 2012 when the Internet giant was facing an antitrust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

“Even though many companies slightly trimmed their first-quarter spending, 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#

Facebook, which has been increasing its Washington presence, spent $2.44 million, a decrease of 12 percent from $2.78 million in the comparable 2014 quarter. Microsoft, Google’s archrival, which used to regularly outspend the Internet giant, spent $1.89 million, a decrease of 9 percent from $2.08 million.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, monitors the lobbying disclosure reports of 16 tech and communications companies. Nine of the 16 companies decreased their first quarter 2015 spending on lobbying, while seven increased spending from 2014 first-quarter levels.

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

— Apple spent $1.24 million, a 16 percent increase from $1.07 million.

— Cisco spent $600,000 a 2 percent increase from $590,000.

— IBM spent  $1 million a decrease of 21 percent from $1.26 million.

— Intel spent $1.17 million, a decrease of 5 percent from $1.23 million.

— Oracle spent $1.29 million, a decrease of 15 percent from $1.51 million.

— Yahoo spent $730,000 a 4 percent increase from $700,000.

One of four telecommunications companies increased its spending on lobbying, while three decreased expenditures in 2015:

— AT&T spent $4.37 million, an increase of 14 percent from $3.85 million.

— Sprint spent $734,927 a decrease of 6 percent from $784,707.

— T-Mobile spent, $1.18 million a decrease of 20 percent from $1.47 million.

— Verizon spent $3.35 million, a decrease of 6 percent from $3.55 million.

The other company in the cable sector besides Comcast monitored by Consumer Watchdog is Time Warner Cable. It spent $1.70 million in 2015, a decrease of 12 percent from $1.93 million.

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Consumer Watchdog Praises Europe’s Planned Antitrust Charges Against Google

Group Says Action Should Benefit Americans After FTC’s Failure To Act Decisively

SANTA MONICA, CA — Consumer Watchdog today welcomed news reports that Europe’s competition authorities plan to file formal antitrust charges against Google on Wednesday and added that the action should benefit Americans after the Federal Trade Commission’s failure to take decisive action against the Internet giant.

“Google continues to manipulate its search results in an unfair and anticompetitive way,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director. “The FTC failed to stop the abuses despite a staff recommendation that charges be filed.  I’m optimistic the Europeans will end the Internet giant’s search manipulation and that Google will implement the required changes on this side of the Atlantic as well.”

News reports said that Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager would detail her plans to file a formal Statement of Objections against Google in a meeting with fellow European Commissioners on Wednesday.  She is due to fly to the United States after that.

Last month the Wall Street Journal revealed a 2012 report from the FTC’s Bureau of Competition that recommended to the Commission that Google be prosecuted.

“Google has one of the biggest lobbying operations in Washington and is executives have close ties to the Obama Administration,” said Simpson. “Could those connections have helped the Internet giant get what was a virtual free pass back in 2013?”

Consumer Watchdog noted that Google executives are already making connections with 2016 Presidential candidates. For example, Stephanie Hannon, who is Google’s director of product management for civic innovation and social impact, will become the chief technology officer of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“Google’s power and connections should be part of the discussion during the next presidential campaign,” said Simpson. “They should be subject of close scrutiny.”

Former European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia’s efforts to reach a deal with the Internet giant without filing formal charges produced three unacceptable proposals.

“Without a formal Statement of Objections to motivate Google, the company simply engages in lengthy settlement talks and continues its abusive anticompetitive behavior,” said Simpson. “If nothing else, a Statement of Objections will concentrate Google executives’ minds and prompt serious negotiations.  If the company fails to give an adequate response, the path is open to force changes through an injunction and to levy substantial fines – up to around $6 billion.”

In a letter Tuesday calling for Vestager to file a formal Statement of Objections Consumer Watchdog said consumer welfare must be the ultimate test of any antitrust settlement and noted that consumer groups on both side of the Atlantic – BEUC and Consumer Watchdog – had objected to all three previous proposed settlement deals.

“They simply did not resolve the fundamental issue of search manipulation.  The heart of the problem is simple. Google has developed a substantial conflict of interest,” wrote Simpson.  “It no longer has an incentive to steer users to other sites, but rather favors its own services.”

The only way to deal with this conflict is to remove it, Consumer Watchdog said.

“Ideally, there needs to be a separation of Google’s different services and assets,” wrote Simpson. “At a minimum any remedy must insist that Google use an objective, nondiscriminatory mechanism to rank and display all search results – including links to Google products.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter to Commissoner Vestager here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrvestager041315.pdf

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Consumer Watchdog Urges Europe To File Antitrust Charges Against Google

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today called on European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to file formal charges against Google in the European Commission’s ongoing antitrust investigation of the Internet giant.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit U.S. public interest group said the former Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia’s efforts to reach a deal without filing formal charges produced three unacceptable proposals.

In a letter to Vestager, John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director wrote:

“Without a formal Statement of Objections to motivate Google, the company simply engages in lengthy settlement talks and continues its abusive anticompetitive behavior.  If nothing else, a Statement of Objections will concentrate Google executives’ minds and prompt serious negotiations.  If the Internet giant fails to give an adequate response, the path is open to force changes and levy substantial fines.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrvestager041315.pdf

Consumer Watchdog said consumer welfare must be the ultimate test of any antitrust settlement and noted that consumer groups on both side of the Atlantic – BEUC and Consumer Watchdog – had objected to all three previous proposed settlement deals.

“They simply did not resolve the fundamental issue of search manipulation.  The heart of the problem is simple. Google has developed a substantial conflict of interest,” wrote Simpson.  “It no longer has an incentive to steer users to other sites, but rather favors its own services.”

The only way to deal with this conflict is to remove it, Consumer Watchdog said.

“Ideally, there needs to be a separation of Google’s different services and assets,” wrote Simpson. “At a minimum any remedy must insist that Google use an objective, nondiscriminatory mechanism to rank and display all search results – including links to Google products.”

“Three failed settlement proposals from Google during your predecessor’s tenure demonstrate the futility of proceeding without a Statement of Objections. Consumer Watchdog calls on you to file a formal Statement of Objections and commence antitrust proceedings,” Consumer Watchdog’s letter concluded.

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Child and Consumer Advocates Urge FTC to Investigate and Bring Action Against Google for Excessive and Deceptive Advertising Aimed at Children

So-called “Family-Friendly” YouTube Kids App Combines Commercials and Videos, Violating Long-Standing Safeguards for Protecting Children

Washington, DC – Consumer Watchdog has joined a coalition of prominent children’s and consumer advocacy groups that filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission today requesting an investigation of Google, charging the company with unfair and deceptive practices in connection with its new YouTube Kids app.

The complaint details a number of the app’s features that take advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities and violate long-standing media and advertising safeguards that protect children viewing television. Among the specific practices identified in the complaint are:

— Intermixing advertising and programming in ways that deceive young children, who, unlike adults, lack the cognitive ability to distinguish between the two;

— Featuring numerous “branded channels” for McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price, and other companies, which are little more than program-length commercials;

— Distributing so-called “user-generated” segments that feature toys, candy, and other products without disclosing the business relationships that many of the producers of these videos have with the manufacturers of the products, a likely violation of the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines.

Besides Consumer Watchdog, organizations signing the complaint include: the Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Corporate Accountability International, and Public Citizen.

“It’s bad enough when Google targets its behavioral ads at adults, but aiming ads at kids like this is absolutely unconscionable and must be stopped,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director.

When it launched the YouTube Kids app in February, Google described it as “the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind.” As the complaint points out, however, the company appears to have ignored not only the scientific research on children’s developmental limitations, but also the well-established system of advertising safeguards that has been in place on both broadcast and cable television for decades. Those important policies include (1) a prohibition against the host of a children’s program from delivering commercial messages; (2) strict time limits on the amount of advertising any children’s program can include; (3) the prohibition of program-length commercials; and (4) the banning of “product placements” or “embedded advertisements.”

Such “blending of children’s programming content with advertising material on television,” the group’s complaint declares, “has long been prohibited because it is unfair and deceptive to children. The fact that children are viewing the videos on a tablet or smart phone screen instead of on a television screen does not make it any less unfair and deceptive.”

The complaint also charges that Google is violating its own advertising policies for YouTube Kids. For example, while the company promises that food and beverage ads will not appear on the app, advertising and promotions for junk food are prominently featured throughout.

“YouTube Kids is the most hyper-commercialized media environment for children I have ever seen,” commented Dale Kunkel, Professor of Communication, University of Arizona. “Many of these advertising tactics are considered illegal on television, and it’s sad to see Google trying to get away with using them in digital media.”

“There is nothing ‘child friendly’ about an app that obliterates long-standing principles designed to protect kids from commercialism,” added Josh Golin, Associate Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “YouTube Kids exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities by delivering a steady stream of advertising that masquerades as programming. Furthermore, YouTube Kids’ advertising policy is incredibly deceptive. To cite just one example, Google claims it doesn’t accept food and beverage ads but McDonald’s actually has its own channel and the ‘content’ includes actual Happy Meal commercials.”

Angela J. Campbell of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law, who serves as counsel to the coalition, called on the FTC to “investigate whether Disney and other marketers are providing secret financial incentives for the creation of videos showing off their products. The FTC’s Endorsement Guides require disclosure of any such relationships so that consumers will not be misled.”

“In today’s digital era, children deserve effective safeguards that will protect them regardless of the ‘screen’ they use,” explained Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “In addition to ensuring that Google stops its illegal and irresponsible behavior to children on YouTube Kids, new policies will be required to address the growing arsenal of powerful digital marketing and targeting practices that are shaping contemporary children’s media culture – on mobile phones, social media, gaming devices, and online video platforms.”

A copy of the group’s letter to the FTC is available here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/4-6-15_youtube_kids_letter_and_exhibits_combined–final_document.pdf

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Consumer Watchdog Welcomes Senate Probe of FTC’s Google Antitrust Investigation; Public Interest Group Called For Inquiry After Newspaper Published Key Documents

WASHINGTON – Consumer Watchdog today welcomed plans by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to examine the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust investigation of Google that was closed in 2013 without a lawsuit.

After the Wall Street Journal earlier this month published portions of a 2012 FTC report recommending the Commission prosecute Google, Consumer Watchdog urged Chairman Lee and Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to hold a Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee hearing to examine how Google managed to dodge antitrust prosecution.

“Google has one of the biggest lobbying operations in Washington and its executives have close ties to the Obama Administration,” said Simpson. “Sen. Lee’s inquiry could show whether those connections helped the Internet giant get a free pass back in 2013.”

Consumer Watchdog urged Sen. Lee to hold a full fledged public hearing on the issue.  The nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group also called on the FTC to release the complete report of the Bureau of Competition recommending prosecution, as well as another report from the Commission’s Bureau of Economics.

The FTC report was revealed by the Wall Street Journal, which got part of the 160-page document when the Commission mistakenly released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the newspaper said.

The staff critique concluded that Google’s “conduct has resulted—and will result—in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Competition Bureau called on the FTC to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google on three of the four issues under review, the Wall Street Journal reported. It was one of several recommendations prepared by divisions within the Commission. The FTC’s Bureau of Economics recommended against a lawsuit, the newspaper said.

“Given the Internet giant’s connections and power, it’s essential we get to the bottom of what happened and why,” said Simpson.  “Unless there is something to hide, all involved should benefit from a full airing of details and public scrutiny in this important case.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s March 20 news release calling for a Senate Antitrust investigation here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/consumer-watchdog-calls-ftc-re-open-its-google-investigation

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Consumer Watchdog Calls On FTC To Re-Open Its Google Investigation; Asks Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee To Hold Hearing On How Google Escaped Prosecution

WASHINGTON – Consumer Watchdog today called on the Federal Trade Commission to re-open its antitrust investigation of Google and urged the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to hold a hearing probing how the Internet giant escaped prosecution for its anticompetitive practices.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group acted in response to a 2012 report from the FTC’s Bureau of Competition that recommended to the Commission that Google be prosecuted. The report was revealed by the Wall Street Journal, which got part of the 160-page document when the FTC mistakenly released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the newspaper said.

The 160-page critique concluded that Google’s “conduct has resulted—and will result—in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

“It is unfathomable that the FTC declined to sue the Internet giant, in the face of pervasive and persuasive evidence from its expert staff,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The only way the FTC can redeem itself and regain public trust is to re-open the case.  Indeed, Google’s anticompetitive and abusive practices of favoring its own services in search results continue.”

Consumer Watchdog called on Chairman Sen. Michael S. Lee (R-UT) and Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to hold a Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee hearing investigating how Google managed to dodge antitrust prosecution by the FTC.

“Google has one of the biggest lobbying operations in Washington and is executives have close ties to the Obama Administration,” said Simpson. “Could those connections have helped the Internet giant get a free pass back in 2013?”

Consumer Watchdog said the FTC should immediately release the staff report from the Bureau of Competition. There was also reportedly a Google staff report from the FTC’s Bureau of Economics.  It should be made public as well, Consumer Watchdog said.

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Consumer Watchdog Cites Shortcomings In Driverless Car Technology; Says DMV Rules For Robot Cars Must Require Steering Wheel So Human Drivers Can Take Over

SANTA MONICA, CA — Consumer Watchdog today warned the California Department of Motor Vehicles that it must not allow Google and others with a vested interest in developing driverless vehicles to push the DMV into issuing rules regulating the public use of robot cars on highways that are inadequate to protect public safety.

“Most importantly, a driverless vehicle must allow a licensed driver to assume control when necessary,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director in a letter to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrdmvshiomoto031915.pdf

“Despite Google’s public relations campaign and statements that it hopes to have robot cars for public use operating on the road within five years, it is important to understand what its vehicles cannot do,” wrote Simpson. “Recognition of the Google driverless cars’ shortcomings should help inform the DMV’s ‘autonomous vehicle’ public use rulemaking process.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter noted a long list of shortcomings of Google’s driverless car technology, including:

— Weather.  Heavy precipitation interferes with the vehicle’s sensors and they don’t work in the snow, nor in heavy rain.
— Human hand signals. The robot cars can’t interact reliably with hand signals given by the human driver of another vehicle, or a policeman using only hand signals to direct traffic.
— Sunshine. If the sun is behind a traffic light, it can interfere with the driverless car’s ability to determine the traffic light’s color.
— Changing road conditions. The sensors don’t recognize large potholes and would not detect an open manhole.  If a traffic light were installed overnight as in the case of a road construction site, the car’s driverless navigation system would not expect it.
— Pre-mapped roads. Google’s robot cars rely on detailed sensor mapping of routes before the robot car hits the road. If a Google driverless car tried a route that had not been specially mapped, probably even a large parking lot, it wouldn’t know what to do.
— Humans. The driverless cars’ video sensors can’t reliably distinguish between a tree branch blowing in the wind and a pedestrian.

The decision on whether to allow a particular manufacturer’s driverless cars to be offered to the public should be informed by the results of safety testing that is being done under the DMV testing regulations now in effect, Consumer Watchdog said.

DMV regulations governing the testing of driverless cars on California highways took effect on Sept. 16, 2014. A key safety provision of the testing regulations is the requirement that there must be a test driver in the driver’s seat who is capable of assuming control of the car. SB 1298, which directed the DMV to write rules covering driverless vehicles required the department to have regulations for the public use of the robot vehicles in place by Jan. 1, 2015.  DMV missed that deadline and is still working on driverless car public use regulations.

“Ironically, a little more than a week after the DMV adopted the testing regulations, Google announced plans for a fleet of robot cars that have no steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator,” wrote Simpson.  “There would be no way for an occupant to take control in an emergency; occupant lives would be in the hands of Google’s driverless technology, completely at the Internet giant’s mercy.”

Safety issues are paramount, Consume Watchdog said, but there are other substantial questions about privacy, data security and insurance that are also raised by driverless cars.  The DMV regulations now being written governing the public use of autonomous vehicles should deal with these important questions as well.

Privacy and security: The DMV’s autonomous vehicle regulations should provide that driverless cars gather only the data necessary to operate the vehicle and retain that data only as long as necessary for the vehicle’s operation, Consumer Watchdog said. The regulations should provide that the data must not be used for any additional purpose such as marketing or advertising without the consumer’s explicit opt-in consent.

“Now is the time to establish the privacy and security parameters that will guide data and security protections in the future,” wrote Simpson. “DMV regulations should require that the data gathered by a driverless car is adequately encrypted and securely stored.”

Insurance: 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 said. Insurance issues will remain primarily the responsibility of the California Department of Insurance.  Nonetheless, the DMV should be cognizant of the fact that some of its decisions – such as requiring a human driver be able to take control – will impact insurance policy, the group said.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter concluded:

“Consumer Watchdog 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 technologies under development today could, if affordable enough to be widely deployed, reduce accidents and ultimately lower auto insurance premiums.

“It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the technology needed to manufacture vehicles that operate ‘autonomously’ with one hundred percent safety will eventually be perfected. 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.

“We call on the DMV to ensure the public interest is put ahead of the self-serving agendas of the autonomous vehicle technology manufacturers.  Regulations to protect data privacy and security must be put in place. The autonomous vehicle regulations for public use should require a full year’s results of testing under DMV regulations with at least six months to publicly scrutinize and analyze the results before a vehicle can be certified for public use. Most importantly, a driverless vehicle must allow a licensed driver to assume control when necessary.”

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Consumer Watchdog Backs Senate Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act