Commentary

FTC Wants EPIC To Butt Out Of Enforcement Decision

The watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center recently went to court in an attempt to nix Google's new privacy policy.

EPIC says that Google's planned revisions to its privacy policy -- slated to take effect on March 1 -- violate the company's settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the launch of Buzz. The privacy advocates asked for a court order requiring the FTC to take action against Google before it changes its policy.

The new policy will allow Google to combine information about signed-in users across a variety of products and services, including Gmail, Android, and YouTube. Google says it intends to use the data to enable more precise ad targeting.

The policy doesn't allow Google to collect any additional information from users. But EPIC says the new policy will give advertisers the ability to deduce more information about people. The group is asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction directing the FTC to sue Google.

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EPIC's lawsuit predates the recent revelations that Google had circumvented Safari users' browser settings. Nonetheless, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, tells MediaPost that the Safari news "absolutely" affects whether regulators should take action regarding Google's new privacy policy.

"There is no question that Google should suspend the planned changes in its privacy policies," Rotenberg says. "And the FTC has a clear obligation to act prior to March 1."

The FTC, not surprisingly, isn't thrilled that EPIC is seeking a court order against the agency. In papers filed on Friday, the FTC says that outside groups like EPIC shouldn't get to weigh in on the decision about whether to bring an enforcement action. The agency has asked U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in the District of Columbia to dismiss the case, arguing that EPIC's complaint "seeks to deprive the Commission of the discretion to exercise its enforcement authority."

The FTC also says in its response that it hasn't yet decided whether to take action against Google; therefore, EPIC's complaint is premature. "The FTC takes very seriously the need to protect the privacy of consumers, and has devoted substantial resources to this effort," the FTC says in its legal papers. "To deploy its resources effectively requires thoughtful and deliberate action on the part of the Commission and its staff, in order to carefully ascertain whether a violation has occurred, to consider the full range of remedies that would be available if a violation is found, and to set priorities among the myriad threats to privacy that consumers face."

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