Court Puts Google Privacy Case On Fast Track

The federal court decided this week to fast-track a lawsuit aimed at forcing Google to halt its planned privacy policy revisions.

The case was filed on Wednesday by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is seeking a court order forcing the Federal Trade Commission to take action against Google. EPIC contends that Google's new privacy policy violates Google's settlement with the FTC stemming from the Buzz launch. Among other terms, that agreement requires Google to obtain users' explicit consent before sharing their data more broadly than its privacy policy allowed at the time of collection.

This week, the D.C. Circuit Court issued a scheduling order that requires the FTC to file a response by no later than Feb. 17.

It makes sense that the court would expedite the case given that Google plans to forge ahead with the rollout on March 1. But whether the judges will agree that Google is violating the Buzz settlement is another question.

Google says it isn't gathering any more data than before or sharing any additional data. On the contrary, the company says the only difference is that it will now aggregate data about signed-in users collected from YouTube, Android, Gmail or other services. Google intends to use that data to compile more detailed profiles, which will be used for ad targeting.

Advertisers will presumably benefit in that they will be able to draw on more information when targeting ads. But the targeting itself is still anonymous.

But EPIC argues that marketers will be able to draw on some of the analytics data it receives when users click on ads -- like which keywords were associated with which users -- in order to make more deductions about them. In other words, even without knowing users' names, advertisers might be able to figure out more information about them.

That might turn out to be true, but at this point the conclusion seems highly speculative.

Regardless, Google's announcement has drawn the ire of many critics -- both on Capitol Hill and in the EU. It's not clear yet how users feel, but it would be understandable if some felt betrayed by the company. After all, many people who used Google's services did so with the belief that the company wasn't planning on aggregating the data. That is, people assumed that what happened in Gmail stayed in Gmail. As of March 1, that will no longer be the case, absent judicial intervention.

Google also didn't score any points with critics by instituting the change in the most high-handed way possible. The company announced it was revising its privacy policy and basically told users they could take it or leave it. Users have some options -- like signing out of Google or creating multiple accounts -- but those aren't always practical for people who want to check email throughout the day.

Google says that the new policy will enable users to have a better, more personalized experience. That may be the case, but Google still could give figured out how to give users more options for avoiding data aggregation. In fact, if Google really wanted to personalize its service, allowing people to opt out of its new system would be a good start.

Tags: google, privacy
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2 comments about "Court Puts Google Privacy Case On Fast Track".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , February 10, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.
    Not near enough.
  2. Stewart Wills from The Optical Society , February 11, 2012 at 7:45 a.m.
    In my case, the most reprehensible thing about this is that it extends to Android. A few months before Google's announcement, I splurged and bought new Android phones for my entire family, coupled with two-year mobile contracts. It's one thing to say, "If you don't like it, just don't use Google services on the Web"; quite another to say, "Throw away your Android phones and pay hundreds of dollars to void your data plans." The fact is, whether it's Google or whoever, it's dangerous for *anyone* to aggregate so much information about you. Google may crow about "Don't be evil," but we really know *nothing* about what Google will become in the future as it encounters new business challenges and temptations in a competitive market. Companies have changed their stripes before -- and once they have the data, they can do with it what they like.