Google facing a double whammy from Brussels and the FTC

Reuters has reported that, following a year-long investigation, four of the FTC regulators have already decided to bring an antitrust lawsuit against Google, possibly “in late November or early December.” The Hill has corroborated the timing although not necessarily the conclusion, saying that, “the commissioners are still scheduling meetings through October with Google and its competitors. The meetings indicate that the FTC is not expecting to reach a formal conclusion until at least November.”

In July, the Financial Times reported that Google was close to an agreement with the EU following a similar, but two-year, investigation. It said that Google had put forward proposals that appeared to satisfy all of Brussels’ concerns. Last week, however, the same newspaper reported a new offer from Google to ‘label’ its own services returned by Google Search. Search results are key to issues on both sides of the Atlantic, with competitors claiming that Google favors itself over rival services. This is not likely to placate Google’s critics: “Google would still be able to put its competitors on page 35, so any solution would have to go much further,” commented Harvard University’s Ben Edelman.

Just how many concessions Google will be willing to make to avoid long and costly lawsuits in Europe and the US is not clear, but it has already said that even if it did boost its own search results, such action would not be illegal.

Meanwhile, a new problem has reared in Europe. Reuters has now reported that 24 of the EU's 27 data regulators plus those of Croatia and Liechtenstein have written to Google demanding changes to the new consolidated privacy policy. This follows an investigation by the French regulator, CNIL. Although the letter does not declare Google’s policy to be illegal, the merging of 60 separate policies from different Google sites into one overall policy “creates high risks to the privacy of users. Therefore,” says the letter, “Google should modify its practices when combining data across services for these purposes.”

“Consumers have been kept in the dark about how much data Google collects and what happens to that data, and Google’s new privacy policy only further disguised what really happens when you use their services,” points out Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “It’s absolutely right that European regulators focus on ensuring people know what data is being collected and how it is being used. Unless people are aware just how much of their behavior is being monitored and recorded it is impossible to make an informed choice about using services.”

Once again, however, Google has stressed that it considers its practices to be perfectly legal. Nevertheless, legal action against Google will make the extent of its data collection practices very public – something that most Google users do not understand. Google will need to balance the threat to its business practices against the threat to its brand image in deciding just how many concessions it is willing to make in order to avoid the publicity of antitrust and privacy lawsuits.

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