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Senators Press FTC to Investigate Google Over Privacy, Data Collection, and Where You Go to Church

Google logo

Google takes a lot of fire from the right over a variety of issues, from perceived search bias to their cozy relationship with the Obama administration. None has been so permanent and widespread a criticism as that of privacy concerns about the monitoring of Americans.

It has been somewhat of a breakthrough issue for the right. That is, it has risen up from mere partisan complaints to actual policy debate and has been taken up by people who mean to do something about it. So much so, in fact, that on Monday an important letter was sent from a pair of senators to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding Google and data collection. A pair of Democrat senators.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons regarding Google collecting "sensitive" location information. Or as they put it, "the potential deceptive acts and practices used by Google to track and commoditize American consumers."

Here's an excerpt from the letter (which is also included in full below):

Since 2009, Google has promoted continuous tracking of user location within several of its products through a service now called Location History. When a user enables Location History, they not only provide Google with periodic data from one device, they deepen the volume and invasiveness of collection across devices and on a continuous basis. While Google describes the tracking as an opt-in feature, our own investigation found that the consent process frequently mischaracterizes the service and degrades the functionality of products in order to push users into providing permission. This conflicts with recent industry-wide changes to improve privacy on smartphones, particularly where Google forces users on Apple devices to enable more permissive settings. Moreover, Google does not offer full and accessible information to consumers on the use of their data, including in advertising and commercial analytics services. These factors raise serious questions about whether users are able to provide informed consent.

Anyone familiar with Google products will recognize this description immediately. That opening paragraph may seem a bit heavy on the hand-wringing, and certainly, as Democrats, we can expect them to rest their appeal on the idea of taking advantage of the ill-informed, but there is a lot more here.

This isn't Sen. Blumenthal's first at-bat with Google. This back and forth has been going on for some time. Back in December, Blumenthal's office sent a letter to Google directly with 12 questions about their data collection. Those questions were organized around details from an article at Quartz, which was referenced in that letter to Google.

Google's vice president of public policy, Susan Molinari, responded to the questions. Senators Blumenthal and Markey have now pressed on to the FTC and are asking for an investigation, saying that Google's response was not to their satisfaction.