Google's Personal Search Warrants FTC Scrutiny: EPIC

The Electronic Privacy Information Center said it is filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Google's Search, plus your world personal search results service.

Updated: It didn't take long for privacy advocates to launch their crusade against Google's "Search, plus your world" social search feature, which attempts to surface photos, posts and people from users' Google+ accounts.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said Jan. 12 it will file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that Google's Search, plus your world service infringes on user privacy and even antitrust regulations.

EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg, who spearheaded the complaint over Google Buzz that led to the FTC ordering Google to avail itself to privacy audits for the next 20 years is holding a press conference with media at 3 p.m. EST today to discuss the filing.

Search, plus your world lets searchers see Picasa photos and posts they've created on Google+, as well as those their Google+ followers have shared with them, on search results pages. Users can also search people they follow in Google+ in the search autocomplete function of the search box and directly in search results. Google also surfaces Google profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest.

The service builds on Google Social Search, a service that to date held little value for users because it lacked the connective fabric of a social network from which to tap relevant content. With more than 60-plus million users reportedly on Google+, the search engine now has that network to leverage.

While this may all sound great for avid Google+ users, Google confirmed earlier this week that it wasn't surfacing content from rivals Facebook and Twitter. Google said these companies refused to make their data available to its search crawlers.

Moreover, some believe this is just another example of Google leveraging its search engine to bolster its other Web services to the detriment of Internet rivals vying for prime placement in the world's leading search engine.

"Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector," Rotenberg told the Los Angeles Times Jan. 11. "I think that should trouble people."

Twitter, the company from whom Google fueled its real-time search service, was one of the most vocal critics of the service. The microblog, which reportedly wanted more money than Google would pay to index Twitter's fire hose of tweets, complained that its tweets would not be as accessible on, with Google giving priority to Google+ content in personalized results.

The sentiment that Google is cutting off smaller players from its prime real estate is something that the FTC and Congress are looking into. Senators grilled Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt last September on Capitol Hill, arguing that Google ranks its own content over results from Yelp, TripAdvisor and other smaller players that rely on the search engine for traffic.

Less clear is how Search, plus your world infringes on user privacy because the personal results remain separate and distinct for each user. A Google+ user's results will only include photos, posts and content from their Google+ account, as well as content from people who have shared content with them via Google+.

Moreover, the personal results are protected by HTTPS encryption, the same security protocol Google used for its search and Gmail services.

Even so, EPIC said in a note on its Website: "Google's changes make the personal data of users more accessible." Also, while users can opt out of seeing personalized search results, they cannot opt out of having their information found through Google search.

The FTC will almost certainly look into Search, plus your world, per EPIC's request.

The bigger question is how Google will respond. Will it curb its investment in the product, or point the finger at Facebook and Twitter, which Google argues will not open their massive data feeds to Google's crawlers.