According to Bloomberg, a Federal Trade Commission probe into Google’s business practices will expand to include burgeoning social network Google+. The news comes days after Google announced that its search engine would include public data from Google+ in search results.
The FTC currently is looking into allegations that Google, the largest search engine by market share in the U.S., favors its own products in search results. As a result of a settlement reached with Google in March 2011, the FTC is also authorized to order third-party audits of Google’s privacy practices once every two years for the next 20 years.
On December 10, Google announced a new search feature, “Search Plus Your World,” which allows the search engine to pull data from users’ connections in Google+ to make searching the web an increasingly personalized experience. By December 12, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had filed a letter of complaint with the FTC raising concerns about the new feature’s effect on competing web services. EPIC also stated in its letter that the FTC should look into the implications “Search Plus Your World” could have on users’ privacy.
Citing Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, EPIC’s letter reads in part, “[A]lthough the data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible. Users might, for example, ‘com[e] across an unexpected photo or post from a friend, [and] might reshare it to the world’ or ‘[t]hings that people may have forgotten sharing with others will begin to show up serendipitously through ordinary Google searches.’”
Sullivan took “Search Plus Your World” to task in in interview with the AP, following the new feature’s launch. In his opinion, the feature is “”exactly the kind of thing that the antitrust people are screaming about.” The AP went on to quote Sullivan thus: “This is very un-Google like. It’s unfair to other services and it’s unfair to people.”
It has three main tweaks. First, search will display, in your results, photos and post from Google+ where relevant, but only those posts in your own account and those shared with you. Other people will not see these results; they’re personalized. Second, Google+ profiles will show up in search and in Google’s usual autocomplete function. Third, Google will suggest relevant profiles and pages on Google+; if you search for music, you might see Sufjan Stevens’ profile.
Twitter has also voiced its dissent against the new feature, calling it “bad” for people who use the web for both personal and commercial purposes. “As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results. We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone,” the company said in a statement emailed to journalists. Google, however was quick to point out that Twitter had ended a partnership with the search engine that had given users the option to use Google as a tool to comb through real-time Twitter data.
“It’s still unclear exactly what the FTC’s concerns are,” Google engineer Amit Singhal, wrote at the time. Danny Sullivan, who shared his opinion of the investigation with the AP, took a similar view. “From what I have seen so far,” he told the AP, “Google doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong.”
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt defended the company before an antitrust panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. In December, Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who serve on the antitrust subcommittee as chairman and ranking member respectively, sent a followup letter to the FTC expressing concerns about Google that “merit serious scrutiny by the FTC.”
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