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Google's Privacy Policy Changes Draw More Fire

Google's Privacy Policy Changes Draw More Fire
By Mark Long

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The Center for Digital Democracy contends that Google's privacy policy change violates an FTC consent decree issued last October in response to a privacy complaint against Google by another watchdog group. At the time the FTC was concerned about the pending launch of Google Buzz and how that would affect the privacy of Gmail users.
 

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The Center for Digital Democracy is accusing Google of misleading American consumers about the company's privacy policy changes, which are scheduled for launch March 1.

Though Google claims the switch is about making its privacy policies more transparent and understandable to users, the CDD said the Internet giant has presented the information "in a deceptive way" that suggests consumers will actually benefit.

In a new complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the digital media watchdog claimed the makeover is really all about giving Google a wider array of opportunities to exploit user data in ways that maximize online advertising sales opportunities and competitive edge.

"Google's own recent and emerging digital advertising and marketing practices are the driving force behind the policy change," CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester told the commission in a formal complaint filed Tuesday.

"The FTC should immediately request that Google postpone its planned privacy policy changes until an investigation has been completed," Chester said.

A Compelling Need

The CDD contends that Google's privacy policy change violates an FTC consent decree issued last October in response to a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. At the time the FTC shared EPIC's concerns about the pending launch of Google Buzz -- an online service that would have compiled and made public the social-networking lists of Gmail users.

Last Friday, however, the FTC asked a U.S. District Court to dismiss a new lawsuit filed by EPIC that sought to compel the commission to enforce its own Google Buzz consent decree. In its response to the court, the FTC characterized EPIC's complaint as "so attenuated and unsubstantial as to be absolutely devoid of merit."

The FTC also cited other court rulings to buttress its claim that the commission's own enforcement decisions are not subject to judicial review.

"EPIC's complaint, which seeks to deprive the commission of the discretion to exercise its enforcement authority, flouts controlling precedent that universally rejects such efforts," the FTC told the court.

In its response to the court, EPIC's lawyers argued that the FTC had submitted precedents to the court that do not, in fact, bar the judicial review of agency action. The watchdog said Congress has already instructed the FTC to enforce any final orders resulting from the commission's own prior investigations and enforcement actions.

"Far from the analogy to prosecutorial discretion that the government proffers, the much closer analogy is to enforcement of a breach of contract," EPIC's lawyers said. "So there is a compelling need for the court to assess the FTC's failure to act."

Peeling Off User Data

Meanwhile, the CDD's new filing before the FTC claims that Google has failed to inform users how the company's new data collection, profiling, and targeting practices may affect -- and potentially harm -- their privacy.

"The key to understanding Google's privacy and data practices is to look at its online marketing initiatives," the CDD said in a blog post Monday. "Users can't be assured their privacy will be protected in a system designed to peel off so much of their information to be used for profile-based targeting."

Google should have informed users that it needs to collect more information on them and their social networks due to reasons related to its digital marketing business, Chester told the FTC.

"We believe that an analysis of Google's business operations over the last year will demonstrate the true rationale for the changes to its privacy policy -- which has nothing to do with making it 'easier' or 'more convenient' for users," he said.
 

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