U.S group sues to halt changes to Google's privacy policy

Wed Feb 8, 2012 4:07pm EST

* EPIC says Google privacy changes hurt consumers

* Says new policy would give advertisers more data

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - A U.S. public interest group asked a federal court on Wednesday to block Google Inc from consolidating more than 60 of its privacy policies, saying it could make it easier for advertisers to target users.

A lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center alleged Google violated a settlement agreement reached with U.S. regulators last March that requires consent from the user if Google collects information under one privacy policy and then changes the policy.

The group is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to issue a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction compelling the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to enforce the consent order.

"The Court must act now to prevent irreparable injury to EPIC and the public," EPIC said in its court filing.

Google, whose offerings include its flagship search engine, Gmail, YouTube and Google+ products, announced last month that it was unifying its numerous product-specific privacy policies.

The company stressed in subsequent announcements that the changes would not allow for any new or additional data collection and said that most of its product-specific policies already allowed information to be shared across product lines when users were signed onto their Google accounts.

"We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history to ensure that users have many opportunities to learn about the changes," a Google spokesman said in a statement.

When the new policy comes into effect on March 1, information from most Google products will be treated as a single trove of data, which the company could use for targeted advertising.

EPIC's lawsuit argues that Google misrepresented its privacy practices by not disclosing the benefits advertisers would reap from access to the consolidated data of users.

The aggregated data would allow advertisers to better target their ads, "and therefore Google's new business practices increase the commercial value of a given user's data," the court filing said.

The group also challenged Google's claim it is not collecting any new information. Aggregated data would give advertisers access to information about users that they were not privy to before, such as logged-in users' YouTube search histories, EPIC said.

"Thus, Google will share new or additional information with third-party advertisers without first obtaining 'express affirmative consent' from Google users," EPIC charged in court documents.

EPIC said the court must act to protect Internet users and prevent, "the hazard that consumers will obtain relief under a FTC order, only to be left without recourse if the Commission fails to enforce its order."

An FTC spokeswoman said: "The FTC takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence that they are being violated."

The Google spokesman said the company had not seen the filing so could not comment on the specifics. He added: "Protecting people's privacy is something we think about all day across the company and we welcome discussions about our approach."

Google, taking heat from lawmakers, said last week that the unified privacy policy would not take away the control its customers have over how data is collected and used.

U.S. regulators are already looking into whether the company manipulates its search results to favor its own products, among other issues.