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Watchdog sues FTC over new Google privacy policy

Rather than take on Google, the Electronic Privacy Information Center is asking the court to block new information sharing and force federal regulators to protect Google users.

February 08, 2012|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Google logo at the Google headquarters in Brussels.
Google logo at the Google headquarters in Brussels. (Virginia Mayo/Associated…)

Reporting from San Francisco — A consumer watchdog has escalated its efforts to block Google from rolling out a controversial new privacy policy that would allow the Internet search giant to harvest more information about its users.

But the Electronic Privacy Information Center is not suing Google. Instead, it filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the Federal Trade Commission, the agency charged with protecting consumers' privacy on the Web.

In an unusual end run around the FTC, the watchdog group is asking a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to compel federal regulators to enforce a settlement they reached with Google last year and protect consumers who will be "left without recourse if the commission fails to enforce its order."

Google settled charges last year that it violated privacy laws by exposing Gmail users' personal information when rolling out its now-defunct Google Buzz social networking service. The breach prompted an angry backlash from consumers and privacy advocates who say the Mountain View, Calif., company disclosed personal information without their knowledge or consent.

The 20-year settlement put Google on notice that it had to build privacy protection into its products and could not misrepresent how it handles users' information.

Last month, Google began alerting users around the globe that beginning March 1 it will share data it collects from users across its dozens of services. Google says that only users who are logged into Google will be affected. Google already shared what it knew about its users across most of its services but now it will also include YouTube and Google search history.

Google says its new privacy policy does not violate the settlement it reached with the FTC.

"We take privacy very seriously. We're happy to engage in constructive conversations about our updated privacy policy but EPIC is wrong on the facts and the law," a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Google says its new privacy policy will improve Google services and make Google's privacy policies easier for consumers to understand. A Google spokesman said it does not share users' personal information outside of Google, just with its own services such as Gmail and Google Maps.

The consumer group charges that Google is hoping to boost its online advertising business, which generated nearly $40 billion in revenue last year. Google will now be able to target ads to people based on the videos they watch on YouTube or their previous Google searches.

"If some users like the Google change in terms of service, that's OK. They should opt in. But if other users don't like the proposed change, they have the right to say no," said the consumer group's executive director, Marc Rotenberg. "This has to be the user's choice, not Google's choice. And the FTC must enforce its consent order to protect the rights of users to make these choices."

With rising competition from Facebook, which is on the verge of an initial public offering that could bring $10 billion and a valuation that tops $100 billion, Google is looking to increase revenue from ads more closely tailored to its users. Facebook took the lead in U.S. online display ads from Yahoo last year with a 16.3% share of the market, according to research firm EMarketer. Google, the dominant search engine, came in third with 9.3% of the market.

"Google's new business practices increase the commercial value of a given user's data," the court filing said.

Washington legislators have called on Google to explain the changes. And Google has run into resistance in Europe. Regulators there have asked Google to delay the rollout of the new policy until they can investigate how the changes will affect consumers. Google has said it plans to move forward even as the European Commission looks to overhaul its data protection rules to make them more stringent.

Recent settlements that the FTC has reached with Google and Facebook signal that federal regulators are cracking down on how Internet companies use information they harvest from their users.

"The FTC takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated," FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell said in an emailed statement.

Ryan Calo, director for privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said the courts would probably defer to the FTC.

"Ultimately it will rest in the hands of the FTC to decide whether Google's new privacy policy constitutes a violation of the consent order," Calo said.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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