Pressure is mounting on the Federal Trade Commission to stop Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) plan to adopt a unified policy for all of its online services. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) this week asked the FTC to stop Google from implementing the plan and to sue it for violating a settlement reached last year that bars the company from sharing user data without explicit permission.
Because personal data and tracking information can be helpful to businesses that want to target advertising to prospective customers, social media companies and other online services have been trying to collect the information without raising concerns about violations of privacy. They’re not always successful. After it was discovered that Twitter and social app developer Path downloaded and stored iPhone users’ address books, for example, the companies abandoned the practice.
Google’s do-not-track gesture may not go far enough, some observers say, partly because consumers still don’t know what personal information is being gathered and shared.
Stretching the meaning of “benefit”
Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, said in the complaint that Google is trying to sell its practices as a benefit to consumers, when in reality its new policy is nothing more than a way to track user activity for advertising purposes. Chester added that because Google does not tell users how it’s profiling and targeting practices will impact them and potentially invade their privacy, Google’s communications with consumers are misleading and violate the settlement it reached with the FTC regarding the rollout of the now-defunct Google Buzz social network.
The Google Buzz settlement, approved last October, stemmed from a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group that claimed Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers through the launch of Google Buzz. The rollout of the service spawned thousands of complaints because the options for declining membership didn’t work: many users who chose not to join Google Buzz were enrolled anyway, and those who did agree to membership later discovered that their personal information was shared with people outside of their personal network.
In the end, the FTC agreed with EPIC and, as part of the settlement with Google, can fine the company $16,000 per day for each future violation.
It is too soon to tell whether Google’s do-not-track button will really quiet the growing concerns about its privacy policies and data-culling tactics, especially in light of the revelation last week that the company and a few advertisers had deployed a workaround to privacy settings on the mobile version of Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari browser.
Google said the workaround was meant to deliver customization options that users had chosen through a Google account. Those options include the +1 sharing features built into search via Google+ as well as personalized advertising. On many websites, however, reader comments regarding Google’s explanation suggest it may have rung hollow.