FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

Summary: The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate Google's integration of Google+ and Google Search. EPIC cites the FTC's ongoing antitrust investigation of Google and Google's April 2011 settlement with the FTC over deceptive privacy practices.


Updated Jan. 13 at 12:40 MT  with Google statement

Privacy advocate the Electronic Privacy Information Center Thursday aimed its concerns at Google sending a formal letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to review the integration of Google+ and the company's search results.

EPIC says a review should take place given an ongoing FTC investigation of possible antitrust violations related to the way Google compiles search results, as well as, an April 2011 settlement Google made with the FTC regarding deceptive privacy practices.

EPIC claims the integration of Google+ and Google search, called Search plus Your World, raises concerns over fair competition and the search giant's adherence to the FTC settlement.

EPIC said in its letter to the FTC, "Google's [search] changes make the personal data of users more accessible."  The letter was signed by Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC.

EPIC's concerns were over personal data -  photos, posts, and contact details - being gathered from Google+ users and included in search results. "Google allows users to opt out of receiving search results that include personal data, but users cannot opt out of having their information found by their Google+ contacts through Google search," the letter said.

The EPIC letter to the commission, dated Jan. 12, cited a quote in the New York Times from James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School who specializes in Internet law. Grimmelmann said the Google+, search integration "breaks down a very clear conceptual divide between things that are private and things that are public online."

In the same interview with the Times, Grimmelmann  added that many Google users would find the integration confusing, and that the updates would lead to a "sense of erosion of their privacy."

EPIC wants the FTC to review the changes in light of its April settlement with Google.

A Google spokesman provided this statement when asked about EPIC's letter.

"Our goal with search has always been to provide the most relevant results possible. That's why for years we've been working on social search features to help you find the most relevant information from your social connections no matter what site it's on. Search plus Your World doesn't change who has access to content, it simply helps people rediscover information they already have access to. We've taken special care with our new features to provide robust security protections, transparency and control for our users."

The 2011 settlement related to the introduction of Google's Buzz social site in 2010. The settlement called for Google's privacy practices to be scrutinized for the next 20 years and required Google to obtain the consent of users prior to new or additional sharing of personal information with any third party.

At the time of the settlement, Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said, "This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations."

The FTC investigation of Buzz was spurred by a letter from EPIC.

In addition to the privacy concerns, EPIC is troubled with possible antitrust implications given that Google is accused of favoring its own social information over other sites in its search results.

EPIC is asking the FTC to investigate "Google's business practices, specifically whether the company prioritizes its own services in search results."

The scrutiny of Google comes just a week after EPIC asked the FTC to investigate potential privacy concerns over Facebook and its new Timeline feature.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Apps, Google, Legal, Social Enterprise


John Fontana is a journalist focusing on authentication, identity, privacy and security issues. Currently, he is the Identity Evangelist for strong authentication vendor Yubico, where he also blogs about industry issues and standards work, including the FIDO Alliance.

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  • EPIC is a well known M$ stooge

    I'm sure FTC and DOJ will see through this smoke screen blown by M$!
    LlNUX Geek
    • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

      @Linux Guru Advocate - Paranoid much?

      EPIC is a "public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values." It has "no clients, no customers, and no shareholders".

      They count among their advisory panels many lawyers, attorneys, academica and a few employees from both Microsoft, Google.

      But don't let facts get in the way of your own misguided paranoia.
      • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

        so you've just conceded that it relies on M$ employees as 'advisers'!...LOL
        The Linux Geek
      • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

        @bitcrazed Paranoid A LOT - but what expect from a Fry Cook
    • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

      @Linux Guru Advocate Smoke break over little boy back to the Fryer...
  • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

    As far as I know these results are only added when I am logged on to Google+. So they will see what I let my circles to see, and I see what I am allowed to see anyway, that is the circles I am in. So where is the privacy problem?
    • There's never a problem with Google.

      @bbrinkhus ... Ask the people posting negative about Google what problem(s) they had and your answer will ALWAYS be:<br>"......chirp......chirp..........chirp.........chirp......silence"

      Anonymous posters with nothing important to say, except hear-say.
      • By your recollection only, not by others

        I believe the sound you hear is the blood being pumped through you viens, as you can hear little else if you cover your ears as people say negative comments about Google.
        Tim Cook
      • Mr. Spock.

        @Mr. Spock. I don't really expect it to change. People who don't have any personal issues with Google are going to post negatively about it. I find it interesting that I've been here 5 years and never saw a post where someone actually admitted they had a problem with Google. I can understand that, it's just a weakness of character here where people have anonymous screen names, have no credibility, no accountability, no traceability, no courage, and no fortitude. But they easily provide meaningless criticisms without EVER saying how they suffered, even when repeatedly prompted to do so. It's just the cowardly part of ZDNet. I don't agree with Microsoft, but I have a lot personal experience with them, even from their beginnings with Seattle Computer Products and what Microsoft did to them.<br><br>With their registration and multiple identity system, I could be replying to Ed Bott and not even know it. Their screen name system, along with their Anti-Linux post filtering, is designed to support MS propaganda. How can you condone it and participate in it with all of you postings here?
      • I have acquaintances that have had their books stolen by Google.


        And seen their residual income (small but enough to cover the mortgage) dry up to almost nothing. Google called their books "orphan works" so thought they should share them for free to the world without compensation to the authors. Oh, they tied them into their ad engines so Google made money.

        Google has a business practice that systematically destroys all of the value when it comes to creations of original content. This is from fields as diverse from software to literature to music to AV to journalism.
      • Orphan Works.


        [b][i] "An orphan work is a copyrighted work for which the copyright owner cannot be contacted. In some cases the name of the creator or copyright owner of an orphan work may be known but other than the name no information can be established. Reasons for a work to be orphan include that the copyright owner is unaware of their ownership or that the copyright owner has died or gone out of business (if a company) and it is not possible to establish to whom ownership of the copyright has passed.

        Despite a recognition that a vast number of orphan works exist in the collections of libraries, archives and museums precise figures are not readily available. In April 2009 a study estimated there to be around 25 million orphan works in the collections of public sector organisations in the UK. Examples of orphan works include photographs which do not note the photographer, such as photos from scientific expeditions and historical images, old folk music recordings, little known novels and other literature.

        Orphan works are not available for use by filmmakers, archivists, writers, musicians, and broadcasters. Because the copyright owner can not be identified and located, historical and cultural records such as period film footage, photographs, and sound recordings cannot be incorporated in contemporary works. Public libraries, educational institutions and museums, who digitise old manuscripts, books, sound recordings and film, may choose to not digitise orphan works, or make orphan works available to the public, for fear that a re-appearing copyright owner may sue them for damages." [/b][/i]

        From the Wikipedia information quoted above, if the copyrighted books are traceable to your acquaintances, and their addresses and contact information are available to Google, there should be no question the books are still under a valid copyright and should not be published without their permission and compensation paid to them. Using (valid) copyrighted materials, as the article points out, may incur legal action by the copyright owners.

        I'm not an expert with this, but it appears Google can make an election to use material it believes to be orphaned, but risks legal action if the copyright owner finds out. Google aggressively removing a valid copyright owner and placing the documents in the orphan category while stopping compensation would appear to be way out of line, and if that is the case here, your acquaintances would be fully within their rights to regain their payments and copyright status.

        I've used Google Books a couple of times in the past. It's certainly a gigantic endeavor and I can see where problems like this would surface. I don't understand the aggressive action you describe, but they definitely should pursue getting things addressed, especially when a mortgage payment size payment is involved. The rights favor the authors here.
      • @Joe.Smetona: Google's definition was more simplistic.


        Simply start copying all books they can and place them on the internet. They "limit" the viewer to <i>only</i> 20% of the book and call that "fair use". Get 5 people or randomize your IP and that is easy enough to defeat to get 100% of any book.

        When the major publishers cry foul, Google cuts a deal with them and negotiates with the authors guild (note: not all authors are a member of the guild) to give away the copyright of all the small and independent copyrights to Google (that was thrown out by the Judge as being simply ridiculous). Google was offered an "opt-in" policy but considered that unworkable though it would make this a great project.

        Basically Google considers any work "orphan" that is not from a major publisher. They make 0 effort to contact the copyright holder for self and small indie publishers and since they went to "opt-out", the copyright holder essentially had their work ripped away from them.

        They currently have between $4 - $6 trillion USD (Yes Trillion) in potential liabilities stemming from this corrupt project.

        Google fans will defend this as a "noble effort" and a "great thing" and point to all of the amazing out of print (some by the authors wish) books now available to everyone. The reality is, however, with Google Books Google's moto has gone from "Do no Evil" to:

        "All your data are belong to us."
      • Reply to Bruizer.

        Having a valid copyright has nothing to do with size. If you take a photograph, you automatically have the copyright. If you don't place the copyright notice on the photograph and publish it, it becomes public domain. Enforcing a copyright violation takes legal muscle and most likely significant cost. Most average people are not in a position to do this and a class action suit is worthless (from my experience.) Lawyers are the only ones who benefit.<br><br>What you describe is horrendous, unfair, and just outright fraud. It should be stopped immediately by the government, possibly the FTC. It's a flagrant abuse of the owner's rights. Possibly the only saving grace for the authors is the magnitude of the abuses. Having that many documented violations certainly negates any claims of negligence. It's intentional and from what I've seen common in large businesses. Or, in my case, even small businesses have learned that rampant abuses can go unaddressed because of the effort and legal costs to challenge an infraction. My case was about a patent I applied for regarding electronic circuits and I was told by the business owner who purchased the devices that a patent means nothing unless you can (legally) fight for it. He copied the design and sells the units out of his Chester, PA automotive wiring shop for $180.00. But, he epoxy encapsulated the circuit board and components so other's wouldn't copy "his" design. The whole relationship with him was a ruse to gain proprietary knowledge he wanted, but did not have. Once he got the initial 10 units, it was by-by. This is important because it's his M.O. and there are hundreds, if not thousands of victims over the last several decades that got swindled.<br><br>In the case here, it seems like pushing for the opt-in would be in the best interests of the authors, even those not covered by the guild. Another possible course of action would be to find out who heads the Google Books division and petition to have them removed and replaced. This could really create a PR problem for Google. <br><br>The part I don't understand is Google makes money by selling ads. if they agreed to provide a portion of the ad revenue to the author, it would probably be equitable to both parties. It looks like the "orphan work" law must be very, very old and it's ambiguity is being taken advantage of with today's technology -- or else Google would not be able to do it so easily. Rewriting the laws governing this, I think, would help a lot. From the Wikipedia article, it sounds like very old wording used to describe the process.<br><br>This really needs attention, but for me, a class action suit against an investment company required me to fill out tons of paperwork, copy it, mail it by registered mail and 2 years later I got a check for $8.00. All the money went to the lawyers. I don't do class action lawsuits any more.<br><br>My experience with Google has been very good, but services I use rely on the advertising revenue. I did check out Google Books, when they first started and was looking at a very old copy of a book, where obviously the author was deceased and the copyright was expired (50 years?). What you describe has grown to the size of a monster and it seems they are able to thrive in the complexity and complication of the mess, using it to blur the distinction between truly orphaned works and legitimate owners' works. Any effort to straighten this mess out is going to take tremendous manpower and time to go through the cases. Good Luck.
      • @Joe.Smetona

        This is not true:

        <i>"If you don't place the copyright notice on the photograph and publish it, it becomes public domain."</i>

        All photographs you take and post have a copyright inferred by law. Only if the photograph is specifically released into the public domain is it in the public domain.

        From: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#mywork

        "<b>When is my work protected?</b>
        Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. "

        That said, I always post a copyright and water mark on all photographs I post.
      • Reply to Bruizer.

        @Bruizer... I think we are talking about the same thing, but my terminology is not correct. My understanding is that when a photograph is taken, the owner has copyright (without filing any paperwork having to be filed).

        Placing the copyright text on the photograph provides protection if the photograph is given to a customer or published. If someone takes the photograph to Kinko's or Sttaples and tries to get it copied, generally, they will refuse based on the copyright stamp.

        I guess the difference is how you define public domain and how you define "putting something in public domain" It still seems to boil down to copyright enforcement being in the realm of large companies who can afford legal services.

        I have experience with wedding and commercial photography. I began noticing a trend where album and additional enlargement orders began dwindling (around 2000). people were taking the 4x5" proofs to their local office store and getting up to 200% enlargements, and using the color laser copies as framed photos.

        I have copyright information in my contract. (created by a lawyer), and did not (formally) release the photos into any public domain. It's just how things happen. The only way to prevent the sting from this is to collect a large amount of money up to the point when the proofs are released, so your financial requirements are satisfied.

        I guess putting an image on a website or social media is probably considered public domain. With the wedding proofs, there's no way of knowing what the customer did or ever finding out.
  • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

    Anything that probes, snoops or otherwise gathers info is IMHO wrong and or shady. That is why I try my best to make sure "anything Google" is NOT on any of my computers! The only saving grace is that with "anything Google you know it's probably spying where as some other things that get onto computers your not 100% sure of."
    ET (Google) phone home, NOT ON MY WATCH. We're sorry your call can not be completed!!!!!!
    • Good for you!

      @Disgruntled M$ User ... now what kind of problems have you actually had? How was your privacy invaded? When did they sell your private data?
      • Yeah Joe, it's only evil to you when it involves M$

        @Joe.Smetona so you can trot out decades old made up horror stories about how M$ screws people...
      • otaddy, I would not be surprised to discover that


        "Disgruntled M$ User" is one of the many screen names that Joe.Smetona uses to post under.
        Tim Cook
      • RE: FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

        I don't have to own or drive a lemon to find out it is one. There has been enough published on ET phone home to help me formulate "my opinion". ERGO, I will not have "anything Google" on my machines. To quote from a song "that's my story and I'm sticking to it!"
        By chance do you work for Google? Do you get some sort of kick back for hyping Google? You sir sound like a Google shill!!