Consumer advocates have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that Google violated user privacy through a policy change that gives the company more leeway to build profiles of people as they browse the Web and use Google services.
The changes, which were activated if users opted in when prompted by a query, were widely covered by tech-oriented news sites at the time. Google disputes the allegation that the company acted deceptively and said it made the changes only after testing among users around the world.
But the consumer advocates contend that Google did a poor job explaining the changes to its users, causing many to accept changes that undermined their personal privacy without understanding the consequences.
“Google indeed has been a serial privacy violator,” said John M. Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog. “Something needs to be done that gets their attention.”
The consumer advocates say the June changes violated that consent decree and that the company should be forced to relinquish the advertising revenue collected since then — an amount that Simpson said could reach into the billions of dollars. The company agreed to a record FTC fine of $22.5 million in 2012 after allegations that the company worked around privacy settings on Apple's Safari browser to track users.
“This past June we updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post that echoed the statement to ProPublica in October. “Before we launched this update, we tested it around the world with the goal of understanding how to provide users with clear choice and transparency. As a result, it is 100 percent optional — if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged.”
Government scrutiny in the United States, Europe and beyond has become a recurring issue for Google as it has grown into one of the world's most profitable and pervasive companies. Regulators on several occasions have imposed fines and restrictions that sometimes have served to dampen the company's rapid growth.
The FTC issued a statement on Monday confirming receipt of the groups' complaint and said the agency is "closely reviewing it."