Lawmakers Press FTC on Whether Google Violated Privacy Accord

U.S. lawmakers asked the Federal Trade Commission whether changes announced this week by Google Inc. to its privacy policy violate terms of a 20-year settlement the company reached with the agency last year.

Congressmen Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, called on the agency “to investigate whether Google’s proposed changes violate” a March consent decree to settle FTC claims that the search-engine operator used deceptive practices and violated its own privacy guidelines when it introduced the Buzz social networking service in 2010.

Google announced in a blog post Jan. 24 that it will create a uniform set of privacy guidelines for more than 60 products. The move rankled regulators, including data protection agencies in Ireland and France, along with consumer groups such as San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, who said the change might limit users’ control over what the company can do with their information.

“This new policy would allow Google to follow the activities of users across nearly all its services, including Gmail, Google Search, Google+ and YouTube,” Markey and Barton said in a letter today to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This new policy and omission of a consumer opt-out option on a product-by-product basis raises a number of important privacy concerns.”

Consumer Data

The FTC settlement, which was signed in March, bars Google from misrepresenting how it handles information, obliges the company to follow policies that protect consumer data in new products and requires the search engine to submit to periodic reviews by an external auditor to ensure the policies are followed.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is expanding its antitrust probe of Google, operator of the world’s most popular search engine, to include scrutiny of its new Google+ social networking service, two people familiar with the situation told Bloomberg Jan. 13.

FTC spokeswoman Cecelia Prewett said the agency had received the letter, declining to comment further. On Dec. 7, Leibowitz confirmed in a Senate oversight hearing that the agency is investigating Google, using both its consumer protection and competition arms.

“We’re moving forward on that, mostly collecting documents and asking questions at this point,” he told the House Judiciary Subcommitte on Intellectual Property and Competition, which has oversight over the FTC.

-- Editors: Fred Strasser, Andrew Dunn

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