Privacy advocacy group files lawsuit to punish Google

February 8, 2012

Privacy advocates on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit aimed at forcing government officials to punish Google over alleged privacy violations.

In the complaint, the Electronic Privacy and Information Center said Google’s plans to tie together data of users across services beginning March 1 violates a settlement agreement the company struck with the Federal Trade Commission last summer over a separate privacy controversy.

EPIC asked the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia to force the FTC to take action against Google. If the FTC finds that the firm violated its June 2011 settlement terms, Google could be forced to pay fines of $10,000 for each violation — an amount that could explode because of the popularity of Google’s services, experts say.

“The imminent change in Google’s business practices threatens the same customer interests that the FTC’s consent decree sought to protect,” EPIC said in its suit. “If the FTC does not act to prevent the change, all Google users, including EPIC, face an imminent harm that is both certain and great.”

The FTC didn’t comment specifically on Google’s new privacy policy changes, but spokeswoman Claudia Farrell said the agency “takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated.”

The agency’s settlement with Google last summer came after it charged Google with violating privacy laws by exposing information of Gmail users when rolling out its now-defunct social network, Google Buzz.

Under the terms of the FTC settlement, Google is required to clearly notify users of new changes in its privacy policies.

The new lawsuit comes after U.S. lawmakers and regulators in Europe have raise concerns that the firm is overstepping privacy rights by creating more robust profiles of users, stitching together profiles of users across various Google services. European regulators last week asked Google to delay the changes as they investigate how the plans will affect consumers.

Some privacy experts have commended the company for giving weeks of notice of its privacy changes and for notifying users by e-mail and notices across its sites. And legal experts debate whether Google violated its settlement.

“For the most part, Google could integrate its services under the old privacy polices,” said Ryan Calo, director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “This new, universal policy just acknowledges that Google is one big service, not lots of little ones.”

But other experts and EPIC, which filed the original complaint about Google Buzz, said the search giant is also required to get permission from users for privacy changes. Google doesn’t allow its 350 million Gmail account users to opt out of the new policy changes, but said those who log into their accounts automatically consent to the new program.

Experts also say the company misrepresented how it will use the data it plans to stitch together across services such as Gmail, YouTube and news and finance sites.

“Google’s announcements fail to either disclose or adequately explain that user data will be consolidated for the proposes of benefiting advertisers through improved targeting of users,” EPIC wrote.

Google has said the changes will only apply to users logged onto Gmail or other services. Anyone online can anonymously use the firm’s search engine and some other services such as maps without logging into an account.

The firm defended its privacy policy changes by saying it isn’t seeking to collect more information about users.

“Our updated privacy policy will make it easier to understand our privacy commitments, and we’ve undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history to ensure that users have many opportunities to learn about the changes,” Google said in a statement.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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