Court Rejects EPIC's Attempt To Halt Google Privacy Changes

Privacy-KeyboardThe advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center can't force the Federal Trade Commission to sue Google over its planned privacy policy changes, a federal judge ruled.

"At bottom, the FTC’s decision whether to take action with respect to a potential violation of the consent order is a quintessential enforcement decision that is committed to the agency’s discretion and is not subject to judicial review," U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in the District of Columbia wrote in an order dismissing EPIC's lawsuit.

The ruling leaves the FTC free to decide on its own whether to take action against Google before its new privacy policy goes into effect on March 1. The new policy enables the company to combine data about signed-in users across a variety of products and services, including Gmail, Android, and YouTube. Signed-in users can't opt out of the data combination. But people can effectively opt out by signing out of the service, or using different browsers for different purposes.

EPIC sued the FTC earlier this month, arguing that Google's planned update violates the settlement over the launch of its defunct service, Google Buzz. That consent decree prohibits Google from sharing users' information more broadly than its privacy policy allowed at the time of collection. When Google launched Buzz, the service initially revealed information about the names of some users' email contacts.

EPIC argued that Google's new policy violates the settlement by giving advertisers the ability to deduce more information about particular users. The group asked for a court order directing the FTC to take action against the search giant.

The privacy organization also criticized Google for not telling users about all the ways they could prevent the company from aggregating data about them.

"Google’s email does not indicate that consumers may exercise control over their personal information at all, much less that they may either avoid signing in to their user accounts or create separate user accounts for separate Google services," EPIC argued in its complaint.

Regardless of whether the FTC takes action, Google's new policy has drawn criticism on Capitol Hill and the EU, as well as from state law enforcement officials. Earlier this week, 36 state attorneys general called the new privacy policy "troubling," stating that it "appears to invade consumer privacy by automatically sharing personal information consumers input into one Google product with all Google products."

Google has said the new policy "will make our privacy practices easier to understand," and "reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users."

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