The battle has now moved to the courtroom along with a new target: the FTC. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit against the agency, seeking a judicial order to have it enforce the terms of a recent consent order with Google.
But Google’s January 2012 announcement that it now plans to combine user information across all of its products – such as Android, Gmail, and YouTube – violates the terms of the consent order, EPIC argues.
The group filed suit against the FTC, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction requiring the agency to enforce the consent order against Google. The proposed changes are a “clear violation” of the company’s prior commitments to the FTC, and the agency’s failure to take action has placed “the privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions of Internet users at grave risk,” EPIC contends.
Specifically, EPIC alleges that Google has violated the consent order by misrepresenting the extent to which it maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of users’ personal information and by failing to obtain affirmative consent from users prior to sharing their information with third parties.
According to EPIC, when the company notified users about the pending changes, for example, it emphasized only the increased functionality for users and failed to disclose that the consolidation of user data is intended to benefit advertisers by improved targeting of users. Further, the consolidation of user data is a change from stated sharing practices in effect at the time Google collected information such as a user’s search history, which violates the terms of the consent order.
In a court filing opposing EPIC’s motion, the FTC called the suit “completely baseless,” arguing that enforcement decisions are not subject to review.
Emphasizing the agency’s enforcement actions in the areas of consumer privacy, the FTC said that to deploy “its resources effectively requires thoughtful and deliberate action on the part of the Commission and its staff, in order to carefully ascertain whether a violation has occurred, to consider the full range of remedies that would be available if a violation is found, and to set priorities among the myriad threats to privacy that consumers face. Granting the preliminary injunctive relief that EPIC has requested – forcing the Commission to bring a particular enforcement action within an arbitrary time limit – would be wholly inimical to the ‘public interest in the effective enforcement’ of the laws that Congress has passed to protect the public and entrusted the FTC to enforce.”
To read EPIC’s complaint against the FTC, click here.
To read EPIC’s motion for a temporary restraining order, click here.
To read the FTC’s motion to dismiss the complaint, click here.
Why it matters: Despite the FTC’s vigorous defense in the EPIC suit, Google’s privacy-related woes are not going away anytime soon. The company has already faced a legislative hearing, which was followed up by a letter from Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), seeking more answers about the proposed changes. And European Union authorities are conducting their own investigations, with France’s data protection agency formally requesting that the company postpone the changes. A spokesman for Google told Bloomberg that the company does not plan to delay the changes.