FTC v. Google V2.0 – Lessons Learned

Posted by fgilbert on August 13th, 2012

The Federal Trade Commission has published its long-awaited Proposed Consent Order with Google to close its second investigation into Google’s practices (Google 2). Under the proposed document, Google would agree to pay a record $22.5 million civil penalty to settle charges that it misrepresented to users of Apple Safari’s browser that it would not place tracking cookies on their browser, or serve targeted ads. It would also have to disable all tracking cookies that it had said it would not place on consumer’s computers, and report to the FTC by March 8, 2014 on how it has complied with this remediation requirement.

Google 2 Unique Aspects

Unlike most consent orders published by the FTC, the Google 2 Consent Order does not address primarily the actual violations privacy promises made. Rather, it addresses the fact that Google’s activities allegedly violate a prior settlement with the FTC, dated October 2011 (Google 1).

As such, beyond evidencing the FTC’s ongoing efforts to ensure that companies live up to the privacy promises that they make to consumers, Google 2 clearly shows that the FTC takes seriously the commitments that it requires from companies that it has previously investigated. When an FTC consent decree requires a 20-year commitment to abide by certain practices, the FTC may, indeed, return and ensure that the obligations outlined on the consent decree are met.

Privacy Promises are made everywhere

A significant aspect of the proposed Google 2 Consent Order and related Complaint, is that privacy promises are made in numerous places beyond a company’s online privacy statement. They are found, as well as, in other representations made by the company, such as through its regulatory filings, or in its marketing or promotional documents. In the Google 1 enforcement action, the FTC looked at the promises and representations made in Google’s Safe Harbor self-certification filings. In the Google 2 enforcement action, the FTC looked at the promises and representations made in Google’s statements that it complied with the Self-Regulatory Code of Conduct of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

Misrepresentation of compliance with NAI Code

In the third count of the FTC Complaint in Google 2, the FTC focuses on Google’s representation that it adheres to, or complies with the NAI Self-Regulatory Code of Conduct. The alleged violation of this representation allows the FTC to claim that Google violated its obligation under Google 1 to not “misrepresent the extent to which it complies with, or participates in, a privacy, security, or other compliance program sponsored by the government or any other entity”.

Evolution of the FTC Common Law

Google 2 shows a clear evolution of the FTC “Common Law” of Privacy. As the concept of privacy compliance evolves, the nature of the FTC’s investigations becomes more refined and more expansive. In its prior cases, the FTC first focused on violations of companies’ privacy promises made in their public Privacy Statements. Then, more recently, in several consent orders – including Google 1 – the FTC expanded the scope of its enforcement action to include violations of the Safe Harbor Principles outlined by the US Department of Commerce and the EU Commission. Now, with Google 2, the FTC expands again the scope of its enforcement actions to include potential violation of representations made of compliance with the NAI Self Regulatory Code of Conduct. This trend is likely to continue, and in future cases, we should expect to see an expansion of the FTC investigations into verifying compliance with statements made that a company follows other self-regulatroy industry standards.

What consequences for Businesses

Companies often use their membership in industry groups or privacy programs as a way to show their values, and to express their commitment to certain standards of practice. This was the case for Google with the Safe Harbor of Department of Commerce and of the European Union (Google 1), and with the Network Advertising Initiative (Google 2).

These promises to comply with the rules of a privacy program are not just statements made for marketing purposes. The public reads them, and so do the FTC and other regulators.

Privacy programs such as the Safe Harbor or the NAI Code have specific rules.  As shown in the Google 1 and Google 2 cases, failure to comply with the rules, principles and codes of conducts associated with membership in these programs could be fatal.

If the disclosures made are not consistent with the actual practices and procedures, such deficiency would expose the company to claims of unfair and deceptive practice; or in the case of Google, to substantial fines for failure to comply with an existing consent decree barring future misrepresentation.

If your company makes promises or statements about its privacy – or security – practices, remember and remind your staff that these representations may have significant consequences, and may create a minefield if not attended to properly; and

  • Look for these representations everywhere, and not just in the official company Privacy Statement; for example, look at the filings and self-certification statements, the cookie disclosures, the marketing or sales material, the advertisements;
  • Periodically compare ALL promises that your business makes with what each of your products, services, applications, technologies, devices, cookies, tags, etc. in existence or in development actually does;
  • Educate your IT, IS, Marketing, Communications, Sales, and Legal teams about the importance of working together, and coordinating efforts so that those who develop statements and disclosures about the companies policies and values fully understand, and are aware of all features and capabilities of the products or services that others in the Company are designing and developing;
  • If your company claims that it is a member of a self-regulatory or other privacy compliance program, make sure that you understand the rules, codes of conduct or principles of these programs or industry standards; and ensure that the representations of your company’s compliance with these rules, codes of conduct, principles are accurate, clear and up-to-date;
  • Ensure that ALL of your company’s products and services comply and are consistent with All of the promises made by , or on behalf of, the company in ALL of its statements, policies, disclosures, marketing materials, and at ALL times.
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