EPIC sues FTC to stop Google; search giant says group wrong on facts, law

The Electronic Privacy Information Center is suing the Federal Trade Commission in federal court to compel the agency to stop Google from rolling out its new privacy policies.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

A privacy watchdog group has filed a federal lawsuit against the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to block the implementation of Google's controversial new privacy policy.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says Google's plan to change its privacy policy on March 1 violates a consent order the company signed in October as part of a privacy complaint settlement with the FTC.

Google shot back at EPIC saying it is "wrong on the facts and the law."

EPIC asked the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., for a court order to force the FTC's hand in regards to Google's actions. The group is also seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction designed to compel the FTC to enforce the consent order, which among other requirements prevents the search giant from combining user data.

"We believe the change is a clear violation of the consent order," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. "EPIC  filed the suit because the FTC has both the authority and the obligation to enforce its consent orders, and [Google's] changes will take place in less than three weeks if the FTC fails to act."

But Google doesn't see it that way, and a company spokesman said, "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. "

He then highlighted three issues to reinforce the point:

  • We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history to ensure that users have many opportunities and ample time to learn about our privacy policy changes. And we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use Google services.
  • We've created a world-class privacy compliance program, as we're confident our third-party assessments will demonstrate.
  • We're keeping your private information private -- we're not changing how any personal information is shared outside of Google.

EPIC filed the original complaint that led to the FTC declaring Google used deceptive privacy practices when it rolled out its Buzz social service in 2010. The group has also dogged Facebook over privacy issues, which resulted in a consent order between the FTC and the social networking giant.

Last week, EPIC's Rotenberg told ZDNet, "The FTC consent orders with Facebook and Google last year were a big deal. But the real test for the FTC is whether they will enforce them this year now that the companies appear to be ignoring what they agreed to."

In Wednesday's lawsuit, EPIC said the FTC  has a "mandatory, nondiscretionary duty to enforce the consent order," that EPIC has suffered a legal wrong, and that it is "entitled to injunctive relief compelling the FTC to enforce the consent order."

Google created waves Jan. 24 with an announcement it was consolidating its myriad of privacy policies into a single one and would look at users as one entity across all its service. The announcement touched off a privacy debate from Washington to the European Union and nearly everywhere in-between.

On Feb. 1, EPIC  filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking access to Google's first mandatory privacy report to the FTC as part of the consent order.

A few days later, the European Union asked Google to postpone its privacy policy changes while it studied the implications.

And just this week, Google responded to the EU regulators with a letter from its global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, that showed Google has no plans to halt the March 1 rollout of its policy changes.

In its court filing, EPIC says the FTC's failure to act puts the "privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions Internet users at grave risk."

FTC spokesperson Claudia Bourne Farrell sent ZDNet a statement saying, "The FTC takes compliance with our consent  orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated."

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