FTC asked to probe Google+, search integration

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.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

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.

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