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Senator Markey Back in the Privacy Hunt: Google’s New Terms of Service Prompt Letter to FTC

Posted in Federal Trade Commission, Online Advertising, Privacy Regulation

Written by Adam Veness

Google has recently announced changes to its terms of service that will allow Google to incorporate its users’ photos, comments and names in advertisements.  This new policy will go into effect on November 11th.

Seemingly always quick to action when privacy issues are implicated, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) has already written a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Chairwoman asking that she look into whether the proposed changes to Google’s privacy policy violate the terms of the settlement agreement that Google reached with the FTC in 2011 over its Google Buzz privacy violations.  (With the government shutdown still looming, it is surprising that anyone was at the FTC to open the letter — maybe Google was hoping it could slip this one by during the shutdown).

Specifically, Senator Markey is concerned with the new “opt-out” requirement that Google is proposing which would require Google+ users to affirmatively opt-out of sharing profile information such as name, photos and endorsements.  In his letter, Senator Markey reminds the FTC that the terms of the settlement agreement prohibit Google from future privacy misrepresentations, requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy policy, and initiates regular, independent privacy audits of the company for the next twenty years.

Although Senator Markey opposes Google’s “opt-out” requirement, this may be better received by the FTC than Facebook’s recently proposed privacy policy changes (reported here), which require users to grant Facebook wide permission to use their personal information as a condition to using Facebook.  Another major difference between the two internet giants’ revised policies is that actions by users under the age of 18 will not appear in shared endorsements in ads and other certain contexts under Google’s policy changes.  Facebook’s proposed revisions to its policy, however, tell its users under the age of 18 that “you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) on your behalf.”

In its new terms of service, Google suggests that these new changes are actually very beneficial to users.  “Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising.”

Once the government reopens (it never gets easier to say that), stay tuned to see if the FTC takes any substantive action.  In the meantime, it would be great if you could +1 this post below and advertise for us with your name, endorsement and photo on Google+, unless of course you’ve opted out…