Privacy groups: FTC has obligation in Google deal

Two privacy groups are stepping up the pressure on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, saying the agency has an obligation to consider privacy concerns as it prepares to rule on the antitrust implications of Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick.

The executive directors of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) repeated their call for the FTC to impose privacy conditions if it approves the merger. It appears that an FTC decision on the $3.1 billion acquisition is "imminent," said Jeffrey Chester, CDD's executive director.

FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz in October suggested the FTC's review of the deal had to be about competition questions, not privacy, but Chester disagreed during a press conference on Tuesday. One of the FTC's main duties is to protect consumer privacy, and the merger of the number one search provider with the number one ad server raises serious privacy questions, he said.

Google's contention that there are no major privacy concerns is "absurd on the face of it," Chester said. DoubleClick says it serves 8 billion online ads and processes 964 gigabytes of Web server log files each day, he said.

"It would be a violation of trust, in effect abuse of their own role, in not addressing an issue of such concern as the data-collection apparatus within the ever-growing behemoth," Chester said. "If they're really the agency to protect consumer privacy, they will act to protect privacy. If they fail to act to protect privacy, they have basically put up a flag to American consumers saying, 'We surrender your data.'"

Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich repeated Google's position that the merger would have positive effects.

"This acquisition is good for consumers, advertisers and Web site publishers, and we continue to be confident that it will be approved," he said. "I would also point out what the FTC itself has said about privacy not playing a role in its review of the deal."

Last week, the two groups asked FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras to recuse herself from the decision on the merger, saying her husband works for a law firm that is advising DoubleClick on the deal in the U.S. Majoras declined to recuse herself, saying that her husband isn't directly involved in the DoubleClick deal and that the Jones Day law firm is advising the company only before European regulators.

An FTC spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.

Chester and EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg repeated their calls for Majoras to recuse herself. Jones Day's Web site, until recently, said it was advising DoubleClick on the deal in the U.S. as well as Europe, they said.

But the most important step the FTC can take is to impose privacy conditions on the merger, Rotenberg said. The case for a privacy review "is very clear," he said.

Chester agreed. "Are they concerned about Americans' privacy, or are they going to give Google a pass?" he said.

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