Is Google’s new privacy policy illegal?

google surveillance cameraThe Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit in Federal court against the FTC yesterday, hoping to compel the government to enforce a privacy agreement it reached last year with Google. EPIC alleges that Google’s brand new privacy policy, which will allow the search giant to share user data across all of its services, including YouTube, Picasa, Gmail, and even Search, violates its previous agreement to allow users to opt-out of future information sharing.

According to a statement on EPIC’s website, “The consent order arises from a complaint that EPIC brought to the Commission in February, 2010 concerning Google Buzz and a similar attempt by Google to combine user data without user consent.” Google’s new privacy policy is scheduled to take effect March 1.

Google found itself in the unenviable position of Internet pariah this past March over the troubled rollout of its Google Buzz social networking service. Users, consumer interest groups, and eventually the federal government railed against the company for its less-than-forthright inclusion of the new product in Gmail, and an inability to allow users to fully opt-out, ultimately resulting in Google’s elimination of the service. Pressured by the controversy, Google entered into an agreement with the FTC in which it promised not to change future privacy settings without first being granted users’ explicit permission. Fast forward one year and privacy concerns at Google are again at the forefront of an at-times impassioned Internet debate.

“Google agreed not to combine user data without obtaining affirmative consent. They are planning to break that promise to users on March 1. That’s why we needed to file this lawsuit,” said EPIC’s executive director, Marc Rotenberg, according to the Associated Press. “If some users like the Google change in terms of service, that’s OK. They should opt-in. But if other users don’t like the proposed change, they have the right to say no. This has to be the user’s choice, not Google’s choice. And the FTC must enforce its consent order to protect the rights of users to make these choices.”

Over the past few weeks, Google has been warning users of the impending privacy change by posting messages across its services, but has not so far given users the option to opt-out of the changes. If the new changes are indeed implemented, Google will, for instance, reserve the right to use Gmail data and keywords to offer more targeted Google search results, if a user is logged in to both services.

In an email correspondence with the Associated Press, a Google spokesperson responded to the lawsuit by saying, “Our updated privacy policy will make it easier to understand our privacy commitments, and we’ve undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history to ensure that users have many opportunities to learn about the changes. We’ll continue to offer choice and control over how people use Google.”

Coupled with Google’s recent announcement that it will pay users $25 a year in order to track Web-browsing habits, it seems that Google is willing to resort to more and more extreme measures to extract valuable data from its users. If this lawsuit is allowed to proceed, however, it would send a strong signal from the government that access to users’ private information is not a right of Internet use, but instead a privilege to be granted by the user.

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