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Privacy watchdog urges investigation of Google search feature

January 12, 2012 |  7:01 pm

Google office in Brussels

An influential Washington privacy group is urging government regulators to probe a new search feature from Google, saying it invades the privacy of users and shuts out competitors.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed  a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday over the new feature called Search plus Your World. The feature started getting attention this week as it rolled out to users who began to see personal photos and updates from the Google+ social network show up in their search results.

Twitter, a competitor to Google+, complained that its content was being pushed down in search rankings.

EPIC’s executive director, Marc Rotenberg, says Google is using its dominance in Internet search to promote its own products at the expense of its rivals. He also said the new feature violates the privacy settlement that Google reached last year with the FTC over its defunct social network Buzz.

"We believe this is something that the FTC needs to look at," Rotenberg told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the FTC declined to comment.

Google says it’s trying to make its search engine more useful by highlighting personal information from its social network. Google rolled out Google+ six months ago as Facebook and Twitter increased in popularity.

"For years we’ve been working on social search features to help you find the most relevant information from your social connections no matter what site it's on," a Google spokesman said. "Search plus Your World doesn't change who has access to content, it simply helps people rediscover information they already have access to. We've taken special care with our new features to provide robust security protections, transparency and control for our users."

The new feature mostly affects the up to 1 in 4 people who are logged in to Google or Google+ while searching the Web. Those users now have the option of seeing search results that are customized to their interests and connections. If they search for a vacation spot such as Mexico or Hawaii, they may see photos from previous trips or posts from friends.

Google has been working a long time to create a search engine that delivers results tailored to its users. 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.

Google was already facing broad scrutiny of its search and advertising businesses in Washington and Brussels. Critics allege that Google exploits its dominant position in search to promote its own services.

The Federal Trade Commission, attorneys general in six states and the European Commission are looking into complaints. Google handles about two-thirds of Web searches in the U.S. and more than 80% in much of Europe.

Google also faces rising scrutiny on privacy matters. In April, it agreed to submit to 20 years of privacy audits as part of the privacy settlement with the FTC.

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."

But Google is facing uncomfortable questions about whether it's looking out for its users or itself, said Danny Sullivan, editor of the website Search Engine Land, who has been tracking Google since the 1990s.

Facebook, which generated billions of dollars in revenue last year and is weeks away from filing plans for a $100-billion initial public offering, poses the biggest threat to Google's online advertising business.

Facebook formed an alliance with Microsoft's Bing, a rival to Google, which has been showing information mined from Facebook in its search engine’s results since May.

Facebook declined to comment.

Washington antitrust lawyer David Balto said Google has little to worry about because EPIC does not have a case.

"You would need a super-powered microscope to be able to find any significant competition or privacy concerns from Google's conduct," Balto said.

Users are split on whether they want their search engine to deliver results customized to them.

Dave Mora, 31, an analyst for a Los Angeles entertainment company, said he now gets more relevant search results and consequently is using more Google services.

"Your experience is even that much richer," he said. "How many times have you asked a friend that knows about computers a tech question, you car enthusiasts friend a car question, or even that doctor friend a medical question? It is the same idea, just presented differently.”

But Melissa Cleaver, a 35-year-old blogger from Houston, said that she would turn off the feature and that she's getting increasingly wary of how powerful Google has become on the Web.

"It just seems to me that Google is pulling out all the stops to force you to use Google+," said Cleaver, who has 40% of her investment portfolio in Google stock. "I don't think Facebook or Twitter have anything to worry about. Just another reason that Mark Zuckerberg can sleep soundly tonight."

RELATED:

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

New Google feature adds a personal touch to search results

Twitter blasts prominence of Google+ content in search results 

-- Jessica Guynn

 Photo: Google office in Brussels. Credit: Virginia Mayo / Associated Press

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