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Group files FTC complaint against Google for privacy changes

The Center for Digital Democracy calls on the FTC to halt the proposed changes scheduled for March 1

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission should force Google to halt its plan to consolidate user identities across its services and fine the company for violating an October privacy settlement with the agency, privacy group the Center for Digital Democracy said in a complaint filed Wednesday.

Google is not making the changes to its privacy policy to provide convenience to users, as it claims, but to better track them and deliver targeted advertising, the CDD complaint said. "Google has communicated its real plans to expand data targeting throughout all it services, and to better compete against Facebook, to its advertising customers," said Jeffrey Chester, CDD's executive director. "They have failed to tell the truth to consumers."

The FTC should require Google to "accurately and honestly" inform users about the reason for the changes, Chester wrote in his complaint.

Even though Google has not yet rolled out the privacy changes, its plans violate an FTC settlement over Google's aborted Buzz rollout, Chester said. The Buzz settlement allows the FTC to assess fines of US$16,000 per violation and applies to "future actions," according to the FTC.

The plan, announced in January, is "a digital fait accompli, so to speak," Chester said.

Google defended the changes. The 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," the company said in a statement. "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 representative said the agency has received the complaint but would not comment further.

Other privacy groups have also complained about the proposed changes. Earlier this month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit against the FTC for the agency's alleged failure to enforce the privacy settlement.

The CDD complaint is not related to recent reports that Google has changed the privacy settings in the Safari and Internet Explorer browsers in order to install cookies. CDD doesn't plan to file a complaint about those reports, but is instead focused on the proposed changes to the company's privacy policy, Chester said.

Google plans to roll out the changes on March 1. Chester called on the FTC to act quickly to block the privacy changes, and he called on Google to delay the changes until an FTC investigation can be completed.

Google will use the new privacy practices to collect more personal data about YouTube, smartphone and computer users so that the company can deliver more personalized ads, the CDD complaint said. Google has rolled out several new initiatives in the past year focused on delivering better targeted ads, the complaint said.

The FTC settlement requires Google to get "express affirmative consent" from users before sharing their personal information with third parties, and the new privacy policy will allow Google to share more information with Vivaki, a targeted ad company that Google announced a partnership with in November, the complaint said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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