Markey Urges FTC to Investigate Whether Google’s Policy Change Violates Privacy Settlement


Washington (October 12, 2013) – In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is calling on the FTC to investigate Google’s recent update to its Terms of Service, which will enable the company to display user names, photos and other personal information in online advertising unless users explicitly opt out.  Sen. Markey’s letter also asks the FTC whether Google’s these changes violate of its settlement with the FTC reached after the company’s previous privacy misrepresentations. On Friday, Google announced it was altering its Terms of Service so consumers would have to “opt-out” of Google’s use of their names, photos, and other personal information in Google advertising. This opt-out, however, would not prevent Google from using consumer’s personal information as part of endorsements on other Google properties. 


“With Google’s planned policy change, I am concerned that consumers – who post their comments and opinions across the Web - may now find themselves enlisted as unwitting endorsers for products in Google advertisements,” said Senator Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Without users’ explicit permission, Google should not take consumer posts and turn them into product endorsements.”


“When Google announced policy changes last year to follow the activities of its users across nearly all its services, I expressed concern that privacy and consumer control were at risk. I urge the FTC to look into this new proposed change to determine whether Google violated the terms of its consent agreement, and I will continue to closely monitor this latest development.”


Full text of Senator Markey’s letter is below. 


As a member of the House of Representatives, Senator Markey launched widespread ongoing investigations into online data privacy and security practices. Last year in the House of Representatives, when Google first proposed privacy policy changes that would allow sharing of consumer data among nearly all of Google’s products and services were a violation of the settlement with the Commission, then-Representative Markey and Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked the FTC to determine if the changes were a violation of it consent agreement with the Commission. Also at the same time, then-Representative Markey and a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Google requesting information on the company’s proposed policy changes.  



October 12, 2013


The Honorable Edith Ramirez


Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC  20001



Dear Chairwoman Ramirez: 


Yesterday, Google proposed changes to its Terms of Service.  The company’s proposed new policy will soon make it possible to display users’ names, photos, and endorsements of marketers’ products across the Web.  This shift in Google’s policy raises a number of important questions about whether Google is altering its privacy policy in a manner inconsistent with its consent agreement with the Commission and, if the changes go into effect, the degree to which users’ identities, words, and opinions could be shared across the Web.  


Under the new advertisement policy, called “shared endorsements”, users’ names and pictures, along with their ratings or comments, could appear in advertisements on any of the millions of Web sites that comprise Google’s display advertising network.  For example, if a user follows a restaurant on Google Plus, that user’s name, photo, and positive endorsement may be displayed in advertisements for that restaurant that friends and others see.  


I understand that, according to Google’s Terms of Service Update:  “When it comes to shared endorsements in ads, you can control the use of your Profile name and photo via the Shared Endorsements setting. If you turn the setting to “off,” your Profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery or any other ads.”  Nevertheless, Google’s Update continues: “This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn’t change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play.”


Moreover, in addition to being an opt-out mechanism, Google's announced privacy changes come over two years after the company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. In that matter, the Commission had alleged that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when Google Buzz was launched in 2010. Google and the FTC agreed on a settlement that bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations; requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy policy; and initiates regular, independent privacy audits of the company for the next two decades.


I respectfully request the Commission’s views on whether Google’s planned changes violate the settlement agreement.  I also request that the Commission provide me with information about any actions it has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google’s proposed changes to its privacy policy violate its agreement with the Commission.


Thank you for your attention to this important matter.  If you have any questions, please have a member of your staff contact Joseph Wender at 202-224-2742.





                                                            Edward J. Markey