Watchdogs Prod FTC To Intervene In Google Privacy Settlement

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Some watchdogs are trying to convince the Federal Trade Commission to intervene in a class-action lawsuit alleging that Google violated users' privacy.

Google agreed to settle the case last year for $8.5 million, but opponents call the settlement a “farce” because it doesn't require the company to change its practices. The privacy advocates — including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse — want the FTC to voice opposition to the settlement.

The settlement, first made public last year, stems from a lawsuit alleging that Google leaked search users' names to publishers and advertisers via referrer headers — the information that's automatically transmitted by Google to publishers and advertisers. Some queries, like people's vanity searches on their own names, can offer clues to users' identities.

The deal requires Google to pay around $6 million to six nonprofits, and also requires Google to revise its privacy policy — but allows the company to continue transmitting referrer headers.

The watchdogs want the FTC to do whatever it can to convince U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in the Northern District of California to scuttle the deal. “The proposed settlement is bad for consumers, bad for online privacy, and does nothing to change Google’s business practices,” the watchdogs write to the FTC. “It is not just a bad or imperfect settlement; it is a farce.”

As a practical matter, Google no longer transmits search queries when people click on organic search links. The company still transmits search queries to AdWords advertisers, when users click on paid search ads.

But Hudson B. Kingston, legal director for the Center for Digital Democracy, points out that the settlement doesn't prevent Google from going back to its former practice.

“While it’s encouraging that a company adopts a better practice … the case was brought to end a privacy violation,” he says in an email to MediaPost. “A settlement that doesn’t end that practice and forbid it in the future is not effective. Saying ‘trust us, we probably won’t do that again’ is not sufficient legal protection for the class.”

Davila will hold a hearing about the matter on Aug. 31.

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