Is Google’s Social Search Anti-Competitive? FTC Complaint Looms

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Rick Wilking / Reuters

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, holding a cell phone running Google software speaks on a panel discussing "The Next Big Thing" on the opening day of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas January 10, 2012.

Google’s ‘Search plus Your World’ is less than a week old, and already a privacy watchdog group has the company in its crosshairs over potential antitrust and privacy issues.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) — the same group whose complaint in 2010 about Google Buzz prompted Google to submit to independent audits of its privacy practices periodically — says it will likely file another complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) taking Google to task over its new social search service.

(MORE: Google to Twitter: You Quit Us, We Didn’t Quit You)

‘Search plus Your World’ is Google’s way of mashing its search engine results together with your personal information as shared through Google+, the company’s fledgling social network. Search on the word “dogs,” for instance, and Google will return results like the Wikipedia page for dogs, the American Kennel Club’s site and Petfinder (a database for pets in need of homes), but it could also surface personal pictures of your dog — if you own one and have the photos uploaded and tagged — or the canine pets of anyone else who’s done so in your Google+ circles. Likewise, if you have a daughter named Abby and someone in your circles searches on that term, they’ll turn up any pictures of her you’ve tagged online (also: comments, blog posts and anything else about “Abby” you’ve shared publicly).

EPIC worries aspects of the service violate basic consumer privacy rights, writing in a note on its website:

Although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible. Users can opt out of seeing personalized search results, but cannot opt out of having their information found through Google search.

What’s more, argues EPIC:

…Google’s changes come at a time when the company is facing increased scrutiny over whether it distorts search results by giving preference to its own content. Recently, the Senate held a hearing on Google’s use of its dominance in the search market to suppress competition, and EPIC urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s use of Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. Google has also acknowledged that the FTC is investigating whether Google uses its dominance in the search field to inhibit competition in other areas.

While Facebook has yet to weigh in, social network Twitter has voiced its own disquiet with Google’s activities, writing “We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding [Twitter-published] information will be much harder for everyone” and calling that “bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the L.A. Times his group is considering filing a letter with the FTC.

“Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector,” Rotenberg told the paper. “I think that should trouble people.”

MORE: Twitter ‘Concerned’ About New Google Search

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham, Google+ or Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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