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Google likely to face FTC complaint over 'Search Plus Your World'

January 11, 2012 | 10:14 am

Google
A privacy watchdog group probably will complain to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that a new Google search feature raises privacy and antitrust concerns.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his group is considering filing a letter with the FTC. 

EPIC made the complaint that resulted in Google's settlement with the FTC that requires the Internet search giant to submit to external audits of their privacy practices every other year.

"We believe this is something that the FTC needs to look at," Rotenberg said.

Google calls the new feature rolling out to users of its English-language search engine "Search Plus Your World." It blends information such as photos, comments and news posted on its Google+ social network into users' search results.

It mostly affects the one in four people who log into Google or Google+ while searching the Web. Those users will have the option of seeing search results that are customized to their interests and connections, say, a photo of the family dog or a friend's recommendation for a restaurant.

Google has been working for years to create a personal search engine that knows its users so well it delivers results tailored to them. It's also trying to catch up to social networking giant Facebook, which, with more than 800 million users, knows its users far better than Google does.

But critics contend Google, a laggard in social networking, is using its dominance in Internet search to favor its own products and take on its chief competitor. 

"Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector," Rotenberg said. "I think that should trouble people."

Critics also say the move raises alarm bells for consumer privacy.

"Although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google's changes make the personal data of users more accessible," EPIC said in a note on his website. 

The effect of Google's latest search feature may be fairly limited — at least for now. The 6-month-old Google+ has 40 million users.

Google is not the first search engine to do this. Microsoft's Bing, which has an alliance with Facebook, has been tapping some information shared on Facebook since May. But Google is attracting more attention because of its dominance in search. It handles as many as two-thirds of all search queries in the U.S.

Twitter has also complained about the new Google search feature. So far Facebook has stayed out of the fray, declining to comment.

When a user is logged into Google or Google+, Google will now tap information from Google+ and photos from its photo-sharing service Picasa, to deliver personalized search results. In the future it will also incorporate other Google services.

Seeing how much information Google gathers could make some people uneasy, said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com. Google has tried to assuage privacy concerns by switching to technology that encrypts all of its search results.

Rotenberg says the FTC needs to go further to protect consumer privacy on the Web.

"This is a problem the FTC needs to look at closely," he said.

In an interview this week, Google Fellow Amit Singhal said Google has taken significant steps to make its new feature private and secure. He also said Google was open to including information from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

"However," he said. "It has to be done in a way that the user experience doesn't deteriorate over time and that users are in control over what they see from whom and not some third party."

RELATED:

New Google feature adds a personal touch to search results

Twitter blasts prominence of Google+ content in search results 

Google gets personal, searches your world, not just the Web

-- Jessica Guynn

 Photo: Google's new search feature has raised concerns. Credit: Virginia Mayo / Associated Press

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