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Google's social search mash gets EPIC FAIL

Privacy warriors mull FTC complaint

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Building an internet within the internet isn't as easy for Google as it once was - and critics of Mountain View's latest efforts to make its search estate more "social" are becoming increasingly vocal.

Respected online privacy campaigner Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is expected to complain to the US Federal Trade Commission about the Chocolate Factory's decision to merge personal data collected via its social network Google+ with the company's search business.

Google announced earlier this week the much tighter integration of its Google+ network into search results with the launch of what it has sloppily dubbed "Search plus your World".

But that is the world according to all the information farmed on the Google ranch – at least for now.

The approach is arguably not dissimilar to that of Facebook, except that – until recently – Google has amassed its huge ad revenue from search result clicks and NOT from its failed attempts at doing social networking, such as the company's well-documented, privacy-lite Buzz blunder.

And, now that it is trying to knit everything "social" into the company's search DNA, critics are stumbling over each over to complain about the strategy.

"Although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible," EPIC noted in a post on its website earlier this week.

"Users can opt out of seeing personalised search results, but cannot opt out of having their information found through Google search," the group argued.

It is now considering lodging yet another complaint about Google's business practices with the FTC.

The outfit's exec director Marc Rotenberg told the Los Angeles Times yesterday that EPIC might file another letter with the Commission.

"Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector," Rotenberg told the newspaper.

"I think that should trouble people."

Concerns have been repeatedly raised about Google's latest online tactic because of its significant dominance in search.

On that front, the company faces a looming report from the anti-trust wing of the European Commission and ongoing disapproval from some lawmakers in the US.

Meanwhile, micro-blogging site Twitter has also grumbled about Google's decision to slot data from its "social graph" into the firm's search results.

Twitter contends that such a move could be "damaging to the internet" by stifling other players in the social network and online publishing markets.

Google, for its part, hasn't ruled out the possibility of including data from the likes of Facebook and Twitter to be streamed over its search results.

According to the LA Times, Google Fellow Amit Singhal said that such an agreement "has to be done in a way that the user experience doesn't deteriorate over time and that users are in control over what they see from whom and not some third party".

However, it's also important to note that Mountain View has turned up late to the social party and six months on Google+ has a reported userbase of around 40 million people compared with Facebook's all-conquering 800-million stalkerbase.

It's not clear how many of those users are actively using the network. Furthermore, Google+ – unlike Facebook – didn't begin life as a tiny startup that built followers slowly online. It's a Google product that is still failing to light a fire under the social network game.

Perhaps the gambit to load Google+ into the company's search will pay off for the firm by helping it build up more followers within its social network – which Google execs prefer to describe as a "platform".

Now it just has to convince everyone that it is not being disingenuous about the data it is collecting from its userbase, while at the same time wrestling with anti-trust questions about the company's search biz. ®

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