Google And Facebook Push Users To Cede Privacy, Advocates Say

Google and Facebook "manipulate" users into accepting privacy settings that disclose more information than the companies need, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other advocacy groups say in a letter sent Wednesday to the Federal Trade Commission.

"We urge you to investigate the misleading and manipulative tactics of the dominant digital platforms in the United States, which steer users to 'consent' to privacy-invasive default settings," EPIC and seven other groups write to the FTC.

The privacy groups -- including Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG -- point to a new report "Deceived by Design," issued this week by the Norwegian Consumer Council, a government agency.

That report says Facebook and Google have "intrusive" default settings, and require users who want a "privacy friendly option" to "go through a significantly longer process."

"They even obscure some of these settings so that the user cannot know that the more privacy intrusive option was preselected," the report states.

The Norwegian Consumer Council adds that Facebook "gives the user an impression of control over use of third party data to show ads, while it turns out that the control is much more limited than it initially appears," and that Google's privacy dashboard "turns out to be difficult to navigate, more resembling a maze than a tool for user control."

Google and Facebook are among many online companies that recently sent users privacy notices in order to comply with Europe's new General Data Protection Regulation. In Google's and Facebook's case, those notifications were designed to encourage users to accept the companies' default settings, which allow for ads to be targeted based on users' data, the report says.

"In Facebook’s GDPR-popup, the interface was designed with a bright blue button enticing the users to “Agree and continue,'" researchers write. "Users who wanted to limit the data Facebook collects and how they use it, had to first click a grey box labelled 'Manage data settings,' where they were led through a long series of clicks in order to turn off 'Ads based on data from partners' ... This path was, in other words, considerably longer."

The Norwegian Consumer Council also says that Google gives a "rose-tinted" view of ad targeting, which the company characterizes as a way of making adds more relevant to users.

"There was no explanation about the possible benefits of turning off Ads Personalisation, or negative sides of leaving it turned on," the report states. "Instead, the user was informed that 'You’ll still see ads, but they’ll be less useful to you,'"

Consumer Reports also issued a new report Wednesday that concluded Facebook's privacy controls "nudge people toward sharing the maximum amount of data with the company."

Consumers Union -- which publishers Consumer Reports -- said its own research into Facebook confirmed the Norwegian Consumer Council's findings.

"Facebook uses tactics that nudge the user to agree to default settings that permit the use of the user’s personal information," Consumers Union said in a separate letter to the FTC.

"Facebook makes the privacy-protective option more cumbersome by requiring many more clicks and/or swipes for a user to limit the collection of their personal information," the group writes. "Facebook frames various privacy settings to only focus on the benefits -- and not the disadvantages -- of turning on or allowing settings that collect and disseminate personal information."

Google said in a statement that it has revised its controls "over many years to ensure people can easily understand, and use, the array of tools available to them." The company added that it had made new revisions to its ad settings and Google account information and controls in the last month.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company's privacy approach "complies with the law, follows recommendations from privacy and design experts, and (is) designed to help people understand how the technology works and their choices.”

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