Google Manipulates Users Into Allowing Tracking, Groups Tell FTC

Google unfairly manipulates people who create accounts into consenting to the collection and use of data, advocacy groups allege in a letter urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the tech company.

“The account sign-up process fails to meet the conditions required for informed consent,” watchdogs including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) and Fairplay say in a new letter to the FTC.

The Brussels-based consumer group European Consumer Organization is making a similar complaint to the Irish data protection authority. That organization also released a report Wednesday, “Fast track to surveillance: How Google makes privacy the hard choice,” that says Google “is unfairly steering consumers during its account signup process, so that they accept surveillance across all Google products and services.”

The FTC has brought prior enforcement actions against Google for allegedly failing to honor its privacy promises, but doesn't appear to have brought a case against the company solely over allegedly manipulative design.

But the agency recently signaled it plans to broadly examine questions about online design -- including so-called “dark patterns” that manipulate users into agreeing to data collection and use.

The U.S. organizations argue to the FTC that Google designed its account creation process in ways that “highlight options that would enable the most possible information collection and use.”

For example, according to the advocacy groups, when Google asks users to agree to its privacy terms, the company buries information about tracking and ad personalization in a link that says “more options.”

“Only by clicking and expanding those options does the user see that they have been automatically opted in to tracking for web and app activity, ad personalization, and YouTube history,” the groups write. “Opting out of tracking not only takes several additional steps for the user, making it more difficult to reject personal data collection and use than to accept it, but is hidden from users unless they fully explore all links present through the sign-up process, even where those links are clearly minimized in favor of highlighted options that allow for more tracking.”

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