Privacy Advocates Challenge GoogleClick With FTC Complaint

Three consumer privacy groups have thrown down a formal gauntlet over the Google/DoubleClick deal--filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission encouraging a halt of the acquisition until a number of issues are resolved.

Stating that the deal would "create unique risks to privacy" and "violate previously agreed standards for the conduct of online advertising," the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) officially urged the FTC to begin an investigation.

The merger raises unique concerns because of the amount of information Google collects and retains for an indefinite length of time, the groups maintain. Although Google announced plans to cut that time to two years, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, argues that "keeping search histories for any length of time is an inappropriate use of consumer information." Indeed, current privacy laws require that consumers' data be deleted once it is no longer needed.

In a statement, Google announced its intention to integrate the two companies' "non-personally identifiable data," but the manner in which that information will be handled is also cited in the complaint as an issue for the FTC to investigate.

That is not surprising, given DoubleClick's previous difficulties involving consumer privacy. In 2002, the company settled lawsuits stemming from an FTC investigation into their attempt to track users' online habits using identifiable personal information such as names.

But on Friday, in a response to speculation about the companies' data-sharing practices, DoubleClick issued a statement intended to assuage the concerns of both consumers and publishers worried about Google gaining access to its most sensitive information.

"Information collected by DoubleClick DART ad serving technology belongs to DoubleClick's clients and not to DoubleClick ... Furthermore, Google would not be able to match its search data to the data collected by DoubleClick, as DoubleClick does not have the right to use its clients' data for such purposes."

That doesn't mean that the data synergy won't happen. According to Lance Cottrell, president/founder of Internet privacy firm Anonymizer, Inc., "it sounds like an instance of contractual obligation. DoubleClick may be contractually prevented from sharing its data with Google, but are the same obligations preventing Google from passing its info to DoubleClick?"

Given EPIC's past successes with regard to Internet privacy concerns, it is likely that the FTC will begin an investigation. And according to Cottrell, that's a good thing.

"The degree to which people misunderstand privacy on the Web is almost incomprehensible. The real danger stems from the fact that people use the Internet like it's anonymous, but it's really not."

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