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FTC May Investigate Google for Favoring Google+ in Search Plus Your World

After privacy watchdog EPIC sent a letter asking the FTC to investigate Google's search plus Your World, sources told Bloomberg that the FTC will 'expand the antitrust probe of Google' to include Google+.

By Ms. Smith on Sun, 01/15/12 - 12:25pm.

The big happy news came when the White House issued a statement on We the People petition site, coming out against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet. ... Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. ... We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security."

While it's not quite 'ding dong the wicked witch is dead,' it's certainly worth celebrating. Dan Kaminsky (@dakami) one of the 'geeks' that testified about SOPA blacklisting implications, tweeted, "Smith and Leahy backing off on DNS, White House coming on board...all I can say is... http://imgur.com/UMw6o."

Meanwhile, the 'Your World' search changes Google launched last week seem to have put Google back in the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC previously placed Google and Facebook under a 20 year privacy watch, as if sending a loud warning that the FTC will go after companies who do a poor job on privacy or security issues.

After the Google Buzz fiasco, the FTC concluded that Google "used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers" when it launched Buzz and then required Google to implement a "comprehensive privacy program" with privacy audits for the next 20 years. That settlement prohibits Google from "future privacy misrepresentations and requires it to obtain the affirmation consent of users prior to' new or additional sharing' of personal information." So last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter [PDF] asking the FTC to investigate Google over the changes Google made as a result of Search plus Your World. "EPIC cited Google's decision to include personal data, such as photos, posts, and contact details, gathered from Google+ in Google Search results."

One of the biggest privacy gripes about Google launching Search plus Your World is that users have no way to opt-out of having their information show up in searches by their Google+ contacts. EPIC wrote that "Google's changes make the personal data of users more accessible. Users might, for example, 'come across an unexpected photo or post from a friend, [and] might reshare it to the world' or 'things that people may have forgotten sharing with others will begin to show up serendipitously through ordinary Google searches'." EPIC's letter to the FTC [PDF] included this portion addressing privacy by James Grimmelmann, an associate law professor at New York Law School: "Google's change 'breaks down the conceptual divide between things that are private and things that are public."

So now the FTC has expanded its antitrust probe of Google to include Google+, reported Bloomberg News which cited sources familiar with the case. "The competition issues raised by Google+ go to the heart of the FTC’s investigation into whether the company is giving preference to its own services in search results and whether that practice violates antitrust laws, said the people, who declined to be identified because the probe isn’t public." Furthermore "users who opt for Google+ see personal information about their friends included from the social networking service when they enter a query. The changes sparked a backlash from bloggers, privacy groups and competitors who said the inclusion of Google+ results unfairly promotes the company's products over other information on the Web."

Although Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich declined to comment on the FTC investigation, he told Bloomberg, "We believe that our improvements to search will benefit consumers. The laws are designed to help consumers benefit from innovation, not to help competitors."

FTC commissioner Julie Brill works on privacy issues, but has not yet publicly commented on Google search which now includes images and posts shared on Google+. While talking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Brill said, "I would like to see us move to a place where it isn't so burdensome for consumers."  She then compared privacy options to parts of a car. "We want choices on the dashboard. But we also need to build some of the mechanisms under the hood, so there are privacy protections that are built in to products and services."

Lastly, today marks a decade (1/15/02) since Bill Gates sent a memo to all Microsoft employees about the birth of Trustworthy Computing which would focus on security, privacy and reliability. According to Microsoft Privacy & Safety blog, "Microsoft was one of the first companies to publish privacy standards for developers and to provide consumers with layered privacy notices." Now Microsoft has over 40 full-time "privacy professionals, with several hundred more employees responsible for helping to ensure that privacy policies, procedures and technologies are applied across all products, services, processes and systems."

At some point over the last ten years, public opinion has morphed from Microsoft being the so-called biggest enemy to an outcry against Google which seems to act in opposition of the company's philosophy statement, "You can make money without doing evil."

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