Speaking at the opening of a two-day FTC "town hall" about privacy, Commissioner Jon Leibowitz said the agency does need to look at the privacy implications of consumer tracking that could occur in the deal, and said that examination has to be separate.
Decision could come this month
The FTC is currently reviewing Google's purchase amid indications that approval could come sometime this month, though perhaps with conditions. The Electronic Privacy Information Council and several other consumer groups have ask the FTC to look closely at the potential privacy implications the combination of Google's search information and DoubleClick's ad tracking could have on consumers and on the web.
Mr. Leibowitz told the town hall today the antitrust review is progressing. "Our staff is working through the [Google-DoubleClick] matter as quickly as possible given the complexity of the deal," he said.
"Under the Clayton Act, our analysis of the merger has got to be about competition and potential competition," he said. "It can't be about privacy, per se. But whatever we do -- let the deal through, block it or attach conditions -- we are still going to have to have to address the fundamental privacy issues and data security problems inherent in behavior marketing. They really do transcend any particular acquisition. Our obligations to consumer of America require nothing less."
Warnings and reassurances
The town hall opened with warnings from consumer groups about privacy, followed by reassurances from industry groups. Tracking "has profound consequences for the future of our society," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He said the growing concentration and control of the internet could lead to a stifling of diverse opinions and voices. "We believe the time for fact finding is over. The FTC must act to protect Americans."
J. Trevor Hughes, executive director of the National Advertising Initiative, said advertisers are merely trying to make their marketing more efficient by targeting consumers more likely to be interested in their products. "Marketers are doing what they always have done," he said.
Mr. Leibowitz said a survey of privacy policies found consumers have little understanding of them. He said that while government laws protect children under age 13, teenagers with web profiles on MySpace seem to be targeted with ads for R-rated movies, and he questioned the lack of information websites provide on their policies. "The current 'don't ask, don't tell' policy needs to end," he said.