FTC Calls for Better Transparency, Warns Google About Latest Changes

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Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill has a simple message for companies that violate user privacy: We took care of Facebook, we took care of Google, and we’ll take care of you, too. Even bolder, her remarks came during an event that was livestreamed via Facebook itself.

Brill, speaking at a cybersecurity forum in Washington D.C. earlier this week, said the FTC felt that “consumers should not have to give up control over their most sensitive data as the toll to enter the information superhighway,” calling such a price “just bad business.”

(MORE: Senators Ask FTC to Investigate Google Just Two Months After Last Investigation)

Brill went on to demand a higher level of transparency from companies about the user information they harvest, saying:

Companies should provide consumers with more information about what is being done with their personal information. One way of putting this principle into practice is providing consumers with access to the information about them that a company possesses. Access is critical, particularly when we’re talking about entities that consumers can’t identify or don’t even know exist—like data brokers. These entities control details about consumers that can have a direct impact on their credit, employment status, and financial well-being.

We are also seeing entities that combine data from multiple sources, including off line and social networks… I am calling on data brokers to take the transparency principle and put it into practice. Develop a user friendly one-stop shop where consumers can gain access to information that data brokers have amassed about them and, in appropriate circumstances, can correct that information.

In the meantime, she continued, the FTC will continue to step in where it sees blatant abuses of user trust or privacy policy. “Facebook and Google learned this the hard way,” Brill said, talking about the FTC investigations into both companies that ended with settlements resulting in changes to privacy policies and transparency, along with periodic audits for the next couple of decades to ensure they’re keeping on the straight and narrow.

Such audits may figure into Google’s future sooner rather than later, in fact. After delivering her prepared remarks, Brill was asked about the changes Google is making to its services, including its controversial “Search, plus Your World” features. “We do have an outstanding consent order with Google, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment about it at this time,” Brill answered. “It is something that is certainly of interest to us.” Consider that a subtle warning, Google. After all, you already know what it’s like when the FTC goes after you.

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

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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