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Privacy groups have lodged a complaint (pdf) with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over Google's proposed acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick. The merger will give the combined company unprecedented power, they argue.

Three groups have asked the FTC to halt the deal until it receives assurances about privacy protection. Google said the complaint fails to identify any activity undertaken by it that falls short of accepted privacy standards.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre, the Centre for Digital Democracy and the US Public Interest Research Group have filed the complaint, alleging that the concentration of information about users that would be controlled by the combined company could lead to dangerous privacy breaches.

"Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick will give one company access to more information about the internet activities of consumers than any other company in the world," said the complaint. "Moreover, Google will operate with virtually no legal obligation to ensure the privacy, security, and accuracy of the personal data that it collects."

The complaint claims that Google violates the Federal Trade Commission Act by engaging in deceptive and unfair trade practices.

"Upon arriving at the Google homepage, a Google user is not informed of Google's data collection practices until he or she clicks through four links," says the section of the complaint which details Google's alleged deceptive trade practices. "Most users will not reach this page. In truth and in fact, Google collects user search terms in connection with his or her IP address without adequate notice to the user. Therefore, Google's representations concerning its data retention practices were, and are, deceptive practices.

"As a result of Google's failure to detail its data retention policies until four levels down within its website, its users are unaware that their activities are being monitored," says the complaint in the section alleging unfair trade practices.

"Furthermore, Google does not provide any 'opt-out' option to its users who do not want Google to store their search terms. Google's collection of information about its users without compliance with Fair Information Practices, such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines, is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers, which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition, and therefore is an unfair practice."

Google retains search terms and links them to the internet addresses of the people who made the search. This could lead to the identification of users, which the activists say runs against the expectations of users.

Google has rejected the allegations that it has broken any law in its practices. "Google believes the complaint is unsupported by the facts or the law," Google counsel Peter Fleischer told reporters. "When we have a chance to explain to the FTC why we keep this information, I think there is zero chance that the FTC will order us to delete it at the end of a session."

In Europe, companies such as Google will soon have to retain IP addresses for between six months and two years to comply with the Data Retention Directive. Member states must pass that into national law by the end of this year.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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