The crux of the issue.
Google’s decision to combine two distinct categories of data – its users’ personally identifiable information connected to their Google accounts with its advertisers’ vast browsing data – is the driving force behind the Complaint’s assertion that “Google has engaged in a dangerously invasive and far-reaching appropriation of user data.” Privacy advocates also contend that Google fell short of its duty to accurately explain the changes to its users, causing many to accept changes that undermine their personal privacy and anonymity without fully understanding the consequences. Google counters that it is merely offering users a more personalized advertising experience while creating a more profitable environment for advertisers.
Some historical perspective.
According to the Complaint, the worrisome evolution of Google’s policy changes does not come as a surprise considering the company’s history of circumventing data privacy regulations.
When Google acquired ad provider DoubleClick in 2007, it was forced to pledge to Congress, the FTC and the public at large that the browsing data collected by DoubleClick’s cookies would remain separate from the company’s massive collection of user information. A few years later in 2010, Google was once again in the privacy spotlight for issues surrounding the newly released Google Buzz social network. This resulted in a Consent Order between Google and the FTC (the “Buzz Consent Order”) mandating that Google not misrepresent the degree to which it protects user data and that it adhere to the now-invalidated US-EU Safe Harbor Framework.
Only a few months after the Buzz Consent Order went into effect, Google’s policies changed again when it moved to consolidate user data across all of its services, creating user profiles that linked information from Maps, YouTube, Chrome, and other Google platforms without an option to opt-out. In 2012, Google paid a $22.5 million settlement, one of the largest in FTC history, after being accused of violating the Buzz Consent Order by covertly circumventing Apple Safari’s privacy settings to install cookies and track consumer’s online activity.
Is competition a viable solution?
Google’s oft-repeated response to criticisms of its data use and collection practices is that “competition is only one click away.” Whether this argument continues to hold water as Google rapidly expands its range of consumer services and devices is uncertain and is already prompting increased scrutiny. The FTC’s response to the most recent allegations could have a significant impact on consumer privacy and make clear to the entire tech industry what is permissible when it comes to storing and leveraging information provided by sophisticated and unwitting users alike.