Google Search Plus Targeted by EPIC Complaint to FTC

Google's Search Plus, which bakes Google+ data into search results, is the Electronic Privacy Information Center's target in a letter to the FTC.

Google's new "Search, plus your world" social search feature, which layers search-results pages with information from Google+, is already attracting considerable attention from privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking for an investigation into the new feature.

When activated as a part of Google Search, the "Search, plus your world" feature presents any Google profiles and Google+ pages related to specific topics, as well as the user's own Picasa photos (and those of their Google+ followers). Users can also search people they follow in Google+ via the search autocomplete function of the search box and directly in search results. It does not surface results from Twitter or Facebook, two competing social networks, in the same manner.

EPIC also held a conference call with media Jan. 12, during which Marc Rotenberg, the group's executive director, expressed concern that Google's enhanced search is emphasizing "its own content over the content of others," and could intrude on a previous privacy agreement between the search-engine giant and the FTC.

Under the terms of that March pact, Google must obtain user consent before sharing information with third parties, if the company alters any privacy promises it made after collecting users' information; Google also agreed to independent privacy audits every two years for the next two decades. The FTC launched its investigation after complaints from EPIC that Google Buzz, the company's Twitter-like social-networking application, by leveraging users' Gmail contacts to scale itself to enormous size, failed to properly account for users' privacy requirements.

"What we have done is to ask the Federal Trade Commission," Rotenberg said during the call, "as part of its current investigation for possible antitrust violations, is whether the changes in Google Search also constitute an antitrust violation and also whether the changes constitute" a change to that FTC agreement.

"We have no general objection to Google," he added. "We're simply concerned about this specific change in a particular Google search and a particular Google product that people rely on."

EPIC also posted the FTC letter on its Website, although clicking on the link returned a 404 error all through the afternoon of Jan. 12. Rotenberg told reporters on the call that the organization would fix the issue.

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