Several consumer advocacy groups in the United States are urging the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they say are “misleading and manipulative tactics” by Google and Facebook.
In a letter to the FTC, the eight privacy groups, including Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said Google and Facebook are steering users to “consent” to privacy-invasive default settings. As the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is implemented across Europe, users of digital services have been asked to consent to new privacy settings through numerous “pop-up” messages.
As illustrated in a report titled “Deceived by Design,” published June 27 by the Norwegian Consumer Council, the pop-up messages used by Google and Facebook manipulate users into accepting settings that will disclose personal information far beyond what is needed to use the service. The report details how companies employ numerous tricks and tactics to nudge consumers toward giving consent to disclosing as much data as possible for as many purposes as possible, including through:
Privacy-intrusive default settings: Research has shown that users rarely change preselected settings. In many cases, both Facebook and Google have set the least privacy-friendly choice as default.
Illusion of choice: Companies employ take-it-or-leave-it privacy settings, obscuring the fact that users have very few actual choices and disclosure of personal information is a condition of using the service. The feeling of control may also persuade users to disclose more information.
Hiding privacy-friendly choices: Privacy-friendly choices require significantly more clicks to reach and are often hidden away.
Deceptive design choices: The disclosure of personal data and the use of targeted advertising is often presented as beneficial through wording and design, often in combination with threats of lost functionality if users decline.
A key aim of the GDPR is to protect the personal data of individuals and to strengthen individuals’ control and rights over their data. Many companies have recently pledged to extend GDPR-level protections to individuals in the United States. “As the findings of the report make clear, however, the approach of Facebook and Google takes away agency from individuals, nudging them towards the most privacy-invasive options,” the letter states.
“The practices highlighted in this report raise significant issues, including whether these companies are upholding their promises to comply with the GDPR and whether these tactics constitute unfair and deceptive trade practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act,” the letter states. “We have documented similar practices for the FTC in the past, most notably in the way that Facebook altered users’ privacy settings and Google opted users into Buzz. In both cases, the FTC took action and found that these were unfair and deceptive trade practices.”
The report of the Norwegian Consumer Council, the letter continues, calls into question these companies’ compliance with the following provisions of GDPR:
(1) The data protection principles of transparency, purpose limitation and data minimization (Article 5 GDPR). Individuals are not being given the full picture—notifications have been designed in such a way as to hide important information from them and nudge them to consent to the collection and use of as much data as possible for a wide range of purposes.
(2) The lawful basis for processing (Articles 6 and 9), and consent (Article 7). Many of the prompts covered in the report appear to rely on consent as a legal basis for processing. However, the practices employed by these companies raise questions as to whether consent in this case can be considered informed and freely given.
(3) Data protection by design and by default (Article 25). Contrary to the requirements of this principle, the design and operation of the “pop-ups” as described in the report make it difficult for individuals to protect their personal data, nudging them towards more data sharing and with (hidden) default settings being set to options that are not the most privacy friendly ones.
“We hope that you will share our concerns about the practices highlighted in this report and urge you to investigate these issues more in-depth,” the letter states. “There is the added risk that where these companies lead (or in this case fail to lead), others will follow.”