Advocacy Groups File FTC Complaint Over Google Privacy Policy Change

Two consumer advocacy groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that Google deliberately deceived consumers about a change in the company's data privacy policy.

Google Data Privacy 2

Two privacy groups have formally accused Google of deceiving customers about the implications of a privacy policy change that the company made earlier this year.

In a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), advocacy groups Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) alleged Google had forced the change on users "in a highly deceptive manner" and without proper notice.

"The change also violated legally binding commitments that Google made to the FTC," the two organizations claimed in the complaint.

At issue is an announcement that Google made in June that effectively neutralized a commitment from nearly ten years ago when it acquired consumer-tracking firm DoubleClick. When purchasing DoubleClick, Google had pledged to the FTC and Congress that it would not combine browsing data from DoubleClick's database with personally identifiable information about users of services like Gmail.

In June, however, the company backed away from the pledge and said it would combine the two data sets where needed in order to deliver a more personalized experience for users of its services. Google has since described the decision as being driven by the proliferating use of mobile devices.

According to the company, the multiple devices that people use these days to access Google services makes it necessary for the company to combine the two data sets so it can continue to deliver a personalized experience.

The company has also stressed that the tracking is purely opt-in. In other words, Google says it tracks people across both databases only in situations where users proactively enable the tracking. Consumers have the option at all times to opt-out of the tracking, Google has said.

PRC and Consumer Watchdog—a perennial Google critic—however claim that Google deliberately downplayed the significance of the change and miscast its new policy as something that would give consumers more control of their personal data.

According to them, Google in fact took several affirmative steps to conceal the fact that the policy change eliminated the barrier between Google’s DoubleClick data and the data it collects from its login accounts like Gmail and YouTube.

"Google induced users to accept the change to its privacy policy by cloaking it in an offer to enable “new features" that purport to provide "more control" over users' personal information," Consumer Watchdog and PRC said "Unsuspecting users accepted Google's offer in droves."

By being able to combine the two data sets, Google now has the ability to create "super-profiles" of its users. The company can now track user activity on Android phones, which hold an 88 percent share of the smartphone market. It also can do so across any website that uses Google Analytics, displays ads served by DoubleClick or hosts YouTube videos.

With its policy change, Google has essentially given itself the power to track users across a vast majority of websites worldwide, including those that appear to users to be entirely unconnected from Google, the two advocacy groups said.

The complaint asks the FTC to investigate Google's data collection practices, the adequacy of Google's disclosure and whether the company had violated the commitment it had made to the FTC when it acquired DoubleClick.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.