Google sugarcoated privacy policy changes to mislead users, group charges

The Center for Digital Democracy says Google's real reason for changing its privacy policy is to grow its business, not make life easier for users. It wants the Federal Trade Commission to enforce a consent order, fine, penalize and seek remedies.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

The Center for Digital Democracy sent a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission Wednesday asking it to find Google in violation of a 2011 consent order, conduct an investigation and request the search giant postpone the rollout of its new privacy policies.

In the 16-page complaint, the CDD says Google failed to accurately and honestly inform users of the real reason for changes its privacy policy, which go into effect March 1.

The CDD claims the changes are not designed to make a users life easier, as Google has stated, but designed to fuel competition against Facebook, incorporate social media data and to boost Google's advertising business, specifically to grow its display advertising to a $200 billion business.

See also: Irreparable injury if FTC fails to police Google?Google fires back at MS privacy claimsProtecting user data in the post-PC eraCongress demands FTC investigate Google's Safari tracking

"[Google] has sugarcoated its decision in a manner designed to mislead users," the CDD said. "It should have informed them of cross-platform data integration for targeting and the privacy implications therein."

The letter was addressed to Donald Clark, secretary of the FTC, and was signed by Jeff Chester, executive director of CDD.

In October 2011, Google was found by the FTC to have used deceptive privacy practices in rolling out its Goggle Buzz social service and the search giant agreed to a consent order and other penalties as part of a settlement.

CDD is joining the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in asking the FTC to enforce the consent order, and a chorus of voices, including the European Commission, in asking Google to delay implementation of its privacy policies.

The CDD's letter comes a day after EPIC filed a court brief as part of its lawsuit against the FTC. The suit demands the agency enforce the Google consent order.

Google released a statement Tuesday reiterating what it has said previously: "Our updated privacy policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users. We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history, and we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services. Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

An FTC spokeswoman said the agency has received the CDD compliant, but cannot comment at this time. The FTC, however, argued last week in its lawsuit with EPIC that the group's request erodes the flexibility inherent in the FTC's enforcement authority. The agency also said an action against it would ignore precedent that prevents rulings that compel enforcement.

Google created waves Jan. 24 when it announced it would integrate its myriad of privacy policies into a single one and would combine information about users across all its services.

In its letter, CDD says Google "fails to tell users in its principal privacy change communications how such data collection, profiling, and targeting practices impact - and potentially harm - their privacy."

CDD claims Google was deceptive in suggesting that the changes will benefit consumers as part of video, blog and other announcements to its millions of users.

The CDD laid out a litany of changes in Google's user targeting and digital marketing operations as proof that privacy policy changes were designed to align with Google's business goals and not user privacy. The made reference to a 2010 complaint it sent to the FTC on digital advertising exchanges and its concerns over privacy and consumer protection.

The group said Google failed to make such information available to users as stipulated by the FTC's consent order.

CDD said Google's own research, done with Nielsen in October 2011, showed that cross-platform data gathering and targeting capabilities is required to increase advertising effectiveness across TV, PC, smartphone and tablets.

CDD said Google's privacy policy should explain that strategy to users.

In addition, CDD said the privacy policy should inform users that YouTube tracking aids in creating profiles for user targeting, better explain the use of targeting on its Ad Exchange, and accurately reflect the privacy implications of Google's "Zero Moment of Truth" initiative that incorporates user location data.

The CDD letter concluded by stating: "the evidence is clear that Google's business practices, many announced and implemented prior to the January 2012 new privacy plan, are the core reason why it is changing its policy," and asks for the FTC to investigate, hand out any necessary punishments, and "immediately request Google postpone its planned privacy changes until an investigation is complete."

Editorial standards