EPIC takes on FTC over their inaction on Google

Electronic Privacy Information Center sues Federal Trade Commission over Google consent issue

by Sharlah Lotze
Staff Reporter

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is suing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) because of a consent issue that the FTC is not enforcing Google to comply with. This is the basic issue behind the restraining order that has been filed. The FTC, as of Feb. 17, 2012, filed an opposition and a motion to dismiss in response to EPIC’s complaint. The FTC believes the restraining order would, “deprive the Commission of the discretion to exercise its enforcement authority.”

The restraining order is based on an issue that arose two years ago, an issue created when Google wanted to change some of their business practices.  They wanted to launch a service called Google Buzz, which was to be Google’s social network, but the problem was that they were releasing user information without prior consent. EPIC got involved at this point, and they did so by confronting the FTC about what was going to be done to rectify the situation. The FTC ordered a consent order that would better protect the privacy of Google product users and subject Google to audits of their users’ privacy.

That was two years ago.  Recently, EPIC has come once again to the FTC, but not in the form of a complaint. This time, they came with a lawsuit. This stems from Google’s recent announcement that on March 1st, 2012, they are planning to change their terms of service and privacy policy. This does not apply to one Google service, but to more than 60 services including Google, YouTube, and the Android mobile operating system.

In the past, it was customary for each respective facet of Google to keep their own user records, but this new change will combine user information from all of the areas to make user profiles that are all inclusive.

This is where the lawsuit comes in. EPIC filed a complaint on Feb. 8, along with a motion for a restraining order against the FTC that urges the FTC to enforce the consent order previously prescribed to Google. The briefing has been expedited because of the timely nature of Google’s change in terms of service. The FTC is being challenged in this issue because of the fact that they are the entity charged with protecting consumers.

One department of the FTC is The Bureau of Consumer Protection. This bureau is in existence to do just that; protect consumers. It is the belief of EPIC that this case is not applicable, which is the reason for the motion. The division is to enforce Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices, including deceptive statements and unfair practices involving the use or protection of consumers’ personal information.

EPIC is filing against the FTC for this reason:  they are held legally responsible as the Bureau of Consumer Protection, to protect the consumers, and they are not, according to EPIC. EPIC believes the FTC is in violation of Section 706 of the Administrative Procedures Act, by unlawfully withholding agency action on a required action. The FTC has a non-discretionary obligation to enforce a final order. The Federal District Court of the District of Columbia will hear the case before March 1st. The hearing is being expedited because this is the date that Google will change its policy.

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