Bigger than Beacon: Politician presses Google on privacy issues

Forget Beacon, the controversial new Facebook advertising feature that tracks what you buy on other sites, then sends that information to your friends on Facebook. Politicians are getting serious about bigger privacy issues on the web. Ranking Republican Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) is going after Google and its prospective $3.1 billion purchase of advertising network DoubleClick.

Yesterday, Barton sent a 24-question letter to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, asking in detail about both DoubleClick’s and Google’s privacy practices. The congressman has also complained that Schmidt ignored his requests to discuss the issues following an initial meeting between the two last month.

Google, meanwhile, says there was a mix-up in communication with Barton and is busy arranging a meeting to clear things up.

At the same time, privacy groups are asking the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission to recuse herself from reviewing the proposed DoubleClick acquisition, as her husband is apparently advising DoubleClick on antitrust issues — DoubleClick could give Google an even more dominant position in the online advertising market. The five-person FTC committee is scheduled to make a ruling this month.

The basic issue here, as we said during the height of the Beacon controversy, is whether or not companies like Google and Facebook should be allowed to collect data about your behavior across web sites without asking you first.

DoubleClick, like many other large advertising networks and now Facebook, tracks what you do on the web using web “cookies.” These cookies are parcels of text that reside in your web browser and send information to companies about sites you visit. DoubleClick uses this data to serve you banner ads, for example, that are contextually relevant to the data it collects about you.

Although you can opt out of cookies in your web browser, they are required to access password-protected sites like Facebook or Gmail.

The FTC says it gets the big picture about privacy, even though it has also stressed that its review of the DoubleClick purchase will focus on antitrust issues. As one commissioner was quoted recently, privacy issues “really do transcend any particular acquisition” — or Facebook feature.