EPIC sues FTC over Google's planned privacy changes

The privacy advocate asks the court to require the FTC to enforce a 2011 privacy agreement with Google

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, asking a court to force the agency to take action against Google over planned changes in the company's collection of personal data.

EPIC, in briefs filed Wednesday, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to require the FTC to enforce a 2011 privacy agreement between the agency and Google over the company's fumbled rollout of its Buzz social networking service.

Google's January announcement that it would consolidate user data over 60 of its services is a "clear violation" of that privacy agreement, EPIC said in court papers. Google has announced it will roll out the changes to its terms of service on March 1.

The FTC has not acted to block Google from making the changes, "placing the privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions of Internet users at grave risk," EPIC's lawyers wrote in court papers. "The FTC is required to enforce the consent order. But the commission has failed to do so."

The agreement between the FTC and Google required the company to implement a comprehensive privacy program and requires independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. The settlement also required Google to review the privacy implications of its current and future products.

"At a minimum, a comprehensive privacy program required by the consent order, which arose from the company's attempt to combine user data from two discrete services, cannot permit the company to now engage in the same prohibited practice," EPIC's lawyers wrote.

EPIC is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction requiring the FTC to enforce the 2011 privacy order.

The changes to Google's privacy practices will give advertisers new insights into Google users, EPIC said in a court brief.

The changes "will make it possible for advertisers to gain access to personal information which was previously unavailable to them," EPIC said in a court brief. "Google ads are targeted to individual users based on information Google gathers about individual users."

The FTC said it closely monitors its consent agreements with companies. "The FTC takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated," the agency said in a statement.

Google takes privacy "very seriously," a spokesman for the company said. "We're happy to engage in constructive conversations about our updated privacy policy but EPIC is wrong on the facts and the law," the company said in a statement.

Google has undertaken "the most extensive notification effort" in the company's history to notify users about the upcoming changes, the statement said. "We're keeping your private information private -- we're not changing how any personal information is shared outside of Google."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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