Privacy Groups Challenge Google's Deal With Double-Click

By Eric Auchard

Consumer privacy groups on Friday sought to derail Google Inc.'s $3.1 billion deal to buy online ad supplier DoubleClick Inc., filing a complaint with U.S. regulators to block the merger on privacy grounds.

Groups led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center have filed the complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission arguing the merger would violate agreed limits on how much data advertisers collect on consumers and seeking an injunction.

"Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick will give one company access to more information about the Internet activities of consumers than any other company in the world," the complaint by the privacy activist groups argues.

New York-based DoubleClick responded in a statement by denying any plan by Google and itself to link the various pools of anonymous data their automated services collect on consumer Web surfing and Internet search behavior.

DoubleClick serves up billions of graphical display ads every day from corporate marketers on thousands of sites across the Web. Google, the leader in an alternative form of online marketing that places ads alongside Web search results, would emerge as an even more powerful force in the online ad market if the DoubleClick deal closes as planned later in 2007.

DoubleClick denied that the data it collects through its system for serving graphical ads to Web site visitors would be combined with Google data on consumer Web-searching habits so as to keep tabs on consumers' spending or browsing habits.

DoubleClick said information collected by its ad-delivery technology is retained by marketing clients who use its system, not DoubleClick itself, and that those rights would not change once Google acquires it. DoubleClick has only limited rights to use such data to identify aggregate trends, the company said.

"Further, Google would not be able to match its search data to the data collected by DoubleClick, as DoubleClick does not have the right to use its clients' data for such purposes," the company said.

The challenge comes a month after Google, which collects mountains of data on its users Web search habits, said within 18 to 24 months it aimed to "anonymize," or obscure key details on, surfing habits that could identify individuals. Previously, Google had kept data "as long as it was useful."

The 11-page EPIC complaint filed on Friday with the FTC criticizes the privacy safeguards both Google and DoubleClick have in place and seeks an injunction to block their combination unless the companies present a plan that provides for stricter data privacy protections.

The groups urge the FTC to force Google to adopt stricter privacy guidelines applied in Canada and some European nations on how much personal data organizations can collect and store.

They asked the FTC to assess the ability of Google to record, analyze, track, and profile the activities of Internet users with data that is both personally identifiable and data that is not personally identifiable.

Unless such steps are taken, EPIC asked the FTC to halt Google's tie-up with DoubleClick, its largest deal to date.

Washington, D.C.-based EPIC led a successful campaign in 2000 to block a plan by DoubleClick to combine data from a national marketing database it had acquired and its own anonymous data collected from the computers of Web surfers.

The fallout from the controversy led DoubleClick to back off the plan and to provide consumers with an "opt out" option to block DoubleClick software that tracks Web surfing habits. The FTC then dropped a probe of the company.

(Additional reporting by Paul Thomasch in New York)

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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Eric Auchard, Reuters
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