The Electronic Privacy Information Center today asked regulators to look into whether Google's new Search Plus feature violates federal antitrust rules and poses consumer privacy concerns.
"We asked the FTC, as part of its current investigation of possible antitrust violations, to assess whether the changes in Google Search also constitute an antitrust violation, and also whether the changes in Google Search violate the consent order Google recently signed with the Federal Trade Commission" related to how Google Buzz was launched, EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said in a conference call today.
For EPIC, it's a bit of deja vu. The public interest research group complained to the FTC about the way Google launched its now-defunct Buzz social network early last year, accusing the company of unfair and deceptive business practices. "Google tried to roll out its social network service by basically opting in the users of Gmail so private e-mail accounts were made publicly available to users of Buzz," Rotenberg said. "The FTC investigated and agreed."
The FTC and Google announced a settlement in March that requires Google to establish a comprehensive privacy program, to undergo independent audits of its privacy practices for 20 years, and to make new features opt-in if they provide additional sharing of certain types of private information.
But now EPIC believes that adding Google+ into search results the way it has is a violation of that agreement.
"We don't think people would reasonably expect that as a user of Google+ you would expect people to find that information through Google Search," Rotenberg said, adding that such integration should be opt in.
"You are opted in and have to choose to opt out and that seems to us to be contrary to the consent order that the FTC established," he said. "There's a strong parallel with Buzz -- opt in Gmail users to launch a social network service. Now they're using search to promote Google+."
Asked for comment on the news and allegations, a Google spokesman provided this statement:
Our goal with search has always been to provide the most relevant results possible. That's why 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. 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.
Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum think tank of which Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other companies are supporters, said he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"I have been following the privacy concerns raised about Google Plus with interest and some skepticism. I can't quite figure out where exactly data is being used in a way that would create an issue," he wrote in a blog post. "Nothing previously private becomes public and nothing previously public but obscure becomes more visible than before. Isn't this precisely the way search should become more useful to me, leveraging data without exposing it in some unexpected way?"
Antitrust probe already under way
The FTC and the U.S. Senate already have investigations under way focused on concerns that Google unfairly promotes its own services in its search results. Members of a Senate antitrust subcommittee were trying to get Google co-founders Larry Page or Sergey Brin to answer questions this summer. After representatives from Expedia, Yelp, and Nextag complained in a hearing in September that Google "doesn't play fair" and "rigs" search results, subcommittee members urged the FTC to investigate the matter further last month. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt denied the allegations at the hearing.
"We understand that the Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating Google for possible antitrust violations, and that this investigation is focusing on whether Google's search practices give preference to its own content over non-Google content," the EPIC letter (PDF) sent to the FTC said. "Furthermore, the Commission has just finalized a consent agreement with Google that establishes new privacy safeguards for users of all Google products and services and subjects the company to independent, biennial privacy audits."
"In light of these developments, EPIC requests that the Commission review Google's recent decision to integrate its social networks, Google+, into search results produced by Google search," the letter said.
Google launched its new personalized search Tuesday. It automatically includes comments and photos from a searcher's Google+ and Picasa networks, unless a user opts out. Critics, including Twitter, have a variety of complaints about the move, including claims that it dilutes search results and gives preference to Google+ content over more relevant material elsewhere.
EPIC and Twitter aren't the only ones complaining about Google's latest move. Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who has researched privacy and search market issues, says Google clearly favors its own services over rivals and is using its dominance in search to increase the usage of its ancillary services, like Google+.
"Google's tying tactics should not be permitted. Google's dominant position in search requires that the company hold itself to a higher level of conduct, including avoiding tying its other products to its dominant search service," Edelman, who discloses up front that he serves as a consultant to Google competitors, wrote in a post on his blog today. "Google has repeatedly crossed the line, and antitrust enforcement action is required to put a stop to these practices."
Including Google+ content in search results can adversely affect the relevancy and gives marketers with Google+ accounts an advantage, according to Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand.com. For example, a search for "Facebook" included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's unused Google+ profile up high on the sidebar, and car companies that aren't included high up in the main Web results section now appear at the top of the sidebar section if they have Google+ pages.
"Are you kidding me, Google? You're going to suggest Mark Zuckerberg's Google+ account as relevant? An account that he's never posted at," Sullivan wrote in a blog post "Being on Google+ means that you potentially can have your Google+ page leap to the top in those sidebar results, Google+ matters. It matters more than ever before."
Updated at 2:39 p.m. PT with Google comment and information from Future of Privacy Forum, Ben Edelman, and Danny Sullivan, and 1:11 p.m. PT with more background and details.