Privacy concerns flare with Google, Facebook

Online privacy issues jumped to the forefront Wednesday in Maryland as the attorney general challenged Google Inc.'s new privacy policy, a few days after a pair of Baltimore attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook Inc. for allegedly tracking users who ventured off its online social network.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler sent a letter to Google that demanded a meeting in a week about the company's changes to its privacy policy, which gives the Internet company deeper access to users' data across its services, such as Gmail and YouTube. Thirty-five other states joined Gansler in support.

"I am deeply concerned about Google's effort to push a major privacy change on consumers without giving them the choice to opt in, or at a minimum the opportunity to opt out," Gansler said in a statement.

Separately, attorneys William H. "Billy" Murphy and Peter G. Angelos, who owns the Baltimore Orioles, filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook in California last week — one of among a dozen suits in 11 states that will be consolidated by judges in California. The two attorneys have litigated several major class-action lawsuits and won multi-million-dollars payouts over the years.

"Facebook made a promise to its users that it would not track their website activity unless they were signed into Facebook," said Murphy. "And that promise turned out to be false."

Facebook plans to fight the cases in court.

"We believe that these cases are without merit, and we will fight them vigorously," said Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman.

Online privacy continues to grow as a flashpoint for Web users, technology companies and Congress. Consumers are increasingly using social networking applications that connect them with other people and companies. Facebook has more than 800 million users worldwide.

More people are using smartphones that can access the Internet and potentially share the personal information with companies that provide software on the devices. Privacy watchdogs have long advocated for safeguards for consumers when it comes to harvesting their personal data.

Google has drawn fire for its forthcoming privacy changes from online watchdogs. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also questioned Google's apparent tracking of Internet users through Apple Inc.'s Safari web browser.

Congress and state officials are looking at how Internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, handle online privacy. Many Internet companies, big and small, collect user data in order to serve more relevant advertisements to their Web visitors. It is a business model that large companies, and even smaller start-ups, rely on for revenues.

Currently, users of Google's services can be subject to more than 60 different privacy policies. Those policies have allowed Google to combine user information across services for years, a company spokesman said. The new policy starting March 1 would give Google access to a user's information in a unified manner across all its services, according to Gansler's office.

The company presents the changes as an improvement for users. Google has said users' information will remain private, it won't sell personal data to advertisers, and its users still can use its services, such as Google Maps and Search, without signing in.

"Our updated privacy policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users," said Chris Gaither, a Google spokesman, in an email statement.

In the lawsuits filed against Facebook, the plaintiffs — including those represented by the Baltimore attorneys — allege that Facebook tracked users, even after they logged off the site, according to court papers.

The lawsuit filed by Murphy and Angelos is one of the most comprehensive among the cases filed by several firms across the country this month. The Baltimore duo are vying with other law firms to be named as lead attorneys in a class-action suit against Facebook.

Murphy and Angelos have years of experience in high-profile, class-action litigation. Two years ago, Murphy won a $34 million verdict for restaurant workers in Baltimore who were sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Angelos won a $54 million settlement against Constellation Energy Group Inc. four years ago for Anne Arundel County residents whose groundwater had been contaminated by the company's disposal of coal ash. Angelos did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Murphy and Angelos now have their sights on Facebook. Facebook's coffers are expected to fill this year with proceeds from an initial public offering that is expected to raise as much as $10 billion. Analysts predict that Facebook's market valuation could top $75 billion.

In court papers, the two Baltimore lawyers cited several federal and California laws that Facebook allegedly breached when they used "cookies" — a piece of digital tracking information stored in web browser — to track users across websites other than Facebook.

The lawsuit said that an Australian blogger discovered the tracking activity in 2010 and blogged about it last September, triggering interest from online advocacy groups and lawmakers.

A Baltimore man, Christopher Simon, is the lead plaintiff for the suit filed by Murphy and Angelos. Simon could not be reached for comment, and Murphy declined to discuss his client.

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