Privacy Group Can’t Force FTC Google Action, Judge Rules

A legal challenge to Google Inc.’s privacy policy was dismissed by a judge who said she lacked authority to order the Federal Trade Commission to take action against the world’s most popular search engine.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in a ruling today in Washington said Congress didn’t give federal courts jurisdiction to monitor FTC enforcement of consent decrees.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, sued Feb. 8, claiming Google’s planned changes to its privacy policy violate a consent order requiring the company to protect consumer data.

“EPIC -- along with many other individuals and organizations -- has advanced serious concerns that may well be legitimate,” Jackson wrote in her ruling. “The FTC, which has advised the court that the matter is under review, may ultimately decide to institute an enforcement action.”

Google, based in Mountain View, California, announced plans on Jan. 24 to unify privacy policies for 60 services and products including YouTube videos and Android software for mobile phones. The move, set to take effect March 1, would simplify conditions for user agreements, the company said.

EPIC said the plan would allow Google to combine more information about users, reduce users’ control of their own data and give more personal information to advertisers. Google has denied that the new policy will divulge any more information about users to third parties.

Notice of Appeal

“The judge did not reach the merits of the EPIC complaint,” Marc Rotenberg, EPIC’s executive director, said in an e-mail. The group filed a notice of appeal with the court today.

Rotenberg said his group will also ask Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, to hold a public hearing on Google’s privacy policy.

“We take our settlement orders very seriously, but only the FTC and not outside parties should be able to enforce them,” Claudia Bourne Farrell, a commission spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We are pleased that the court has rejected EPIC’s unwarranted attempt to interrupt the FTC’s careful consideration of the announced changes in Google’s privacy policies.”

Chris Gaither, a Google spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that the new policy will make the company’s privacy practices easier to understand and reflects the company’s desire to create a “seamless experience” for its signed-in users.

‘Most Extensive’

“We’ve undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history, and we’re continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services,” Gaither said.

The FTC’s 2011 settlement with Google over privacy, which barred sharing user data outside the company without clear permission, stemmed from a complaint filed by EPIC in 2010.

Under the consent decree announced March 30, Google agreed it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policies when it introduced its Buzz social-networking service in 2010.

The 20-year settlement bars Google from misrepresenting how it handles information and obliges the company to follow policies that protect consumer data in new products.

The National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter Feb. 22 to Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page criticizing the new privacy policy as failing to give consumers choices about pooling their data. The letter was signed by 36 attorneys general.

The officials, Republicans and Democrats, asked to meet with Page to address their privacy concerns.

Google’s new privacy policy is also under review by data-protection agencies in Europe, which have asked the company to delay introducing the new policy pending that review. Google has said it doesn’t intend to suspend the new policy.

The case is Electronic Privacy Information Center v. Federal Trade Commission, 12-00206, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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