Consumer advocacy groups file complaint over Google's ‘deceptive’ privacy policy change

Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that Google violated the law and an earlier consent agreement when it forced a change in its privacy policy on users in a highly deceptive manner, without meaningful notice and consent.

The Internet giant's action, taken on June 28, is an “unfair and deceptive practice,” violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and also violates the terms of the "Buzz Consent Agreement" Google signed with the agency, the two California-based consumer advocacy organizations' formal complaint said.

The"Buzz Consent Agreement" was reached after Google released users' personal information in violation of its own privacy policy when launching its social network, Buzz, to compete with Facebook. Under the 2011 agreement Google said it would not misrepresent the privacy or confidentiality of individuals' information. The Buzz Agreement also requires Google to get informed consent before sharing users' information with third parties if Google changes the way data is shared contrary to the privacy promises made when the data was first collected. Google violated both obligations with its action in June, the complaint said.

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Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearing House asked the FTC to claw back all advertising revenue earned by Google since the date of the change, citing past privacy violations by the internet giant as evidence that lesser penalties would not be enough to make the company respect consumers' privacy rights. For example, the FTC issued the largest fine in its history, $22.5 million, when Google intentionally hacked Apple's privacy protections, however that fine clearly failed to deter the company's latest privacy violation.

"Fines Google has faced so far are but pocket change for Google. The company's executives consider it merely the cost of doing business as they willfully violate our privacy," says John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project Director. "The FTC must take meaningful action to stop this serial abuser and force it to give up its ill-gotten gains."

Users were not clearly informed of the significance of the changes—or "features" as Google would have it—nor were they clearly and unambiguously given a chance to reject them, he adds.  Existing users who did not wish to accept the changes could not decline immediately, but instead were given the option to click "more options," leading to a second notification. There, users could select "no changes," which presumably meant that their personal data would not be combined with tracking data from third party sites and apps.

For new users, the combination of personal and browsing data was done by default.  New users are notified that Google processes data from sources like Google Maps and from "apps or sites that use Google services like ads, Analytics, and the YouTube video player." The notification later notes: "[w]e also combine data among our services and across your devices. . .

The organizations' complaint warned that failure to act against Google would hurt consumers and could lead other companies to engage in wrongdoing, according to the watchdog organizations. The complaint said:

"Google is a serial reoffender.  It has repeatedly violated consumers' privacy and, when sanctioned, ignored its commitments to the FTC.  Failing to take action now would send the message that as far as Google's encroachments are concerned, consumers are on their own.  Indeed, if the FTC fails to take action against the largest and most significant misappropriation of personal information—which is personal property—in the Internet era, other companies will be left to conclude that they too can avoid accountability.  The public, for its part, would be left to question the value of the FTC and the ability of the Commission to protect consumers.”