Privacy group urges antitrust probe of Google search option

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on Thursday urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate a new feature from Google that will highlight content from the company's social networking site in search results. 

The feature, Search plus Your World, will allow users to search for “personal results,” such as photos and posts by their friends, alongside public results. 

Searching for a movie title, for example, might display show times and professional reviews, but also what a user's friends are saying about it.

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The information will be tailored for individual users but will almost exclusively include results from Google’s social networking site, Google+, and not other sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

The FTC is already investigating whether Google has violated antitrust law by using its dominant position in online searches to give it an unfair advantage in other markets, such as map services and videos.

"Google's changes implicate concerns over whether the company prioritizes its own content when returning search results," EPIC wrote in a letter to the FTC.  "Incorporating results from Google+ into ordinary search results allows Google to promote its own social network by leveraging its dominance in the search engine market."

Twitter also criticized the search changes on Tuesday, calling them "bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users."

EPIC noted that searches will display notable businesses and Google+ users, even for consumers who do not have a Google+ account.

The letter also raised privacy concerns about the changes. 

"Furthermore, although data from a user's Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google's changes make the personal data of users more accessible," the group wrote.

EIPC argued that the changes could encourage users to re-share their friends' private photos and posts.

A Google spokesman emphasized that the changes do not affect users' privacy settings.

"Our goal with search has always been to provide the most relevant results possible," the spokesman said in an email. "That’s why for years we’ve been working on social search features to help you find the most relevant information from your social connections no matter what site it's on. 

"Search plus Your World doesn't change who has access to content, it simply helps people rediscover information they already have access to. We've taken special care with our new features to provide robust security protections, transparency and control for our users."

A 2010 complaint from EPIC led the FTC to investigate Google's now-defunct social network, Google Buzz. The FTC settled charges with Google last year that the company misled consumers by automatically opting them in to Buzz.

The settlement bars Google from misrepresenting its privacy policies and requires the company to submit to outside privacy audits.