Federal court expedites case on Google privacy policies

A federal court said Thursday that it would accelerate a lawsuit that aims to punish Google for alleged privacy violations.

The U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia agreed to a request by plaintiffs The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to speed the review of a lawsuit the privacy group filed against the Federal Trade Commission earlier this week. In its suit, EPIC said Google’s planned privacy policy changes scheduled for March 1 will violate a settlement with the FTC.

The court on Thursday ordered the FTC to respond to EPIC’s complaint by Feb. 17. EPIC will then reply to those comments by Feb. 21.

The court case adds pressure to Google and could delay its plans to combine databases between its 60 services for account holders of Gmail and other products. The company hopes to form more complete user profiles and then tailor ads to those users’ preferences.

“The Court’s deadlines reflect Google’s imminent, substantial changes to the company’s business practices,” EPIC wrote in a blog post.

EPIC has argued that Google will violate a privacy agreement with the FTC. The company has misrepresented its intention to use combined data for behavioral advertising, EPIC wrote in its complaint. And the changes are not optional, which doesn’t allow users to give expressed permission to participate in the new program, the group said.

Google has refuted those claims. It said earlier this week that the company has taken extra steps to notify users of the changes. It notes that users can search and watch videos on YouTube, for example, without signing on to an account.

“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,” the company said in a statement.

Google’s privacy policies have drawn increased scrutiny by lawmakers, who on Thursday asked the company to clarify its plans.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) said in a letter to Google sent Thursday that she still has questions about the company’s potential impact on consumers. About a dozen House members attended a closed-door meeting last week with Google policy director Pablo Chavez and deputy general counsel Michael Yang, but Bono Mack said she still had some questions.

In the letter, Bono Mack asked Google for more clarification on several aspects of the policy, including what the company considers “sensitive personal information” and how the company shares personal information collected from its users. She also asked whether the company sent its privacy changes to the Federal Trade Commission before deciding to change its policy, as is required by its consent decree with the agency.

Bono Mack has asked for a response to her questions by Feb. 21. The new policy is set to go into effect on March 1.

“Privacy is something we take very seriously, and we’re happy to answer their questions,” Google said in an e-mailed statement.

Related:


FTC sued over Google privacy policy

EU asks Google to delay privacy policy changes

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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