The FTC should keep Google out of cars, a privacy group argues

Fight for the Future says Big Tech’s privacy record should prompt the agency to issue rules that keep the companies from taking over automotive consoles.

Interior of autonomous car. Car digitalization concept.

Fight for the Future wants the FTC to stop Big Tech from taking over cars.

Image: metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A privacy group wants the Federal Trade Commission to use its new interest in data regulation to begin cleaning up the mess that is privacy in cars — and to take a hammer to Big Tech’s automotive ambitions in the process.

Fight for the Future is petitioning the FTC on Wednesday, arguing that the agency should begin a rule-making that would take the largely unprecedented step of preemptively limiting the presence of Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta in the automotive market based on their records of collecting and handling data.

It’s a spin on concerns emerging from consumer groups, lawmakers and even competition enforcers who have suggested there could be antitrust violations in big tech companies’ hopes to become the permanently dominant providers of voice assistants or infotainment operating systems in cars. CarPlay is available in 98% of new cars, for instance, according to Vox, and analysts have estimated that within six years, 70% of cars will be able to run their infotainment systems through what is essentially an automotive version of Android. Google and Apple have made major investments toward their own smart vehicles as well.

The petition argues, however, that the poor records of the four companies on data protection should attract the FTC’s attention. Fight for the Future says that keeping the companies from operating automotive lines of business is the only way to protect consumer and driver data.

According to the petition, the commission should put in place “a structural separation that prevents the ‘big four’ tech platforms from entering the auto industry and requires them to sell off their existing assets in the sector.” Such a separation would effectively act like the breakups the FTC can seek when remedying antitrust violations that have already occurred, the petition argues, but would preserve competition proactively.

There’s little doubt that cars are now a trove of data, much of it sensitive. Automotive console systems today routinely have home and work addresses programmed in, plus various other locations drivers sought. It’s not just location data, though: A report issued in 2017 by a trade group for car dealers noted that most modern cars have external cameras, internal microphones for calls, settings to open garage doors or systems designed to recognize drivers’ faces. Infotainment consoles can also get access to drivers’ contacts lists and apps on phones, and potentially make information more accessible to police. Those apps, of course, are themselves communicating with an extensive network of third-party data brokers and ad tech vendors. Cars also collect driver inputs and safety data, and, ever since cybersecurity researchers nabbed headlines by declaring they’d hacked a car’s controls in 2015, there have been questions about whether automotive systems do enough to protect drivers from unauthorized access.

Not all of that information ends up in the hands of Big Tech — and certain location data, like the rough position of a person on a city block, can end up on Big Tech systems anyway, so long as users have a phone with them, especially an Android device. Still, if drivers are using turn-by-turn directions, then their location, down to the intended address, likely ends up with Apple, Google or others, at least for a time. That precise location data is increasingly viewed by regulators and privacy advocates as almost automatically sensitive because of the insight it can give into drivers’ identities, medical information, religious affiliation and income bracket. Apple does take some steps to distance itself from keeping the exact location information that Maps uses, and its ad ambitions aren’t pulling in nearly the same level of revenue as Google’s operation, but the iPhone maker still keeps approximate location data.

In its petition, Fight for the Future included a long list of privacy concerns about the companies that, the group contends, will be supercharged if the giants realize their hopes of extending how much time consumers spend using cars as a platform for the companies’ services.

“Their actions threaten the data privacy of hundreds of millions of American consumers due to their inadequate data security protections and their history of the non-consensual collection and use of consumer data,” the petition says.

The petition includes a greatest hits collection of concerns, including Google’s insatiable collection of location information — even when consumers thought they were asking the company not to track them — as well as Siri’s recording of consumers. Fight for the Future’s document also includes media reports of Amazon employees having overbroad access to data as well as understaffed security teams at the company. It does, however, describe Amazon and Apple as lower-level offenders in terms of privacy as compared to Google and Meta, and did not try to show that certain specific practices were “prevalent,” which the FTC needs to establish in order to kick off rule-making.

In either case, the group argues that the best way to deal with all of the concerns is through those preemptive structural separations. Not only big tech companies, but also conservatives, courts and maybe even some Democrats would likely view such a move as extreme and resting on shaky legal ground.

In support of separations between Big Tech and the automotive market, Fight for the Future cites the scholarly work of Lina Khan before she became FTC chair. In a 2019 paper, Khan examined four historical examples of “separation regimes” that tried to proactively maintain competition in a market rather than restoring it after consolidation. None of the examples came through FTC action of any kind, though Khan said the FTC could wade into the issue when making rules under its power to regulate “unfair or deceptive acts” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

“Absent new legislation, the FTC could use its Section 5 authority to implement a separations principle through rulemaking,” Khan wrote.

Petitions to the commission, like Fight for the Future’s, tend to be far more detailed than average comments, potentially marshaling hundreds of media reports, judicial rulings and pieces of scholarship, sometimes in an effort to push the agency toward new interpretations of the law.

The FTC’s recent move to consider whether rules on data use and cybersecurity were necessary, for instance, came months after the group Accountable Tech filed a 64-page petition on the issue, and consumer groups including Fight for the Future eventually joined the call for the commission to create regulations. In fact, in its recent request for comments on privacy and cybersecurity, the FTC seemed to flirt with structural separations, asking whether businesses including search and social media should have limits placed on them preventing them from “owning or operating a business that engages in any specific commercial surveillance practices like personalized or targeted advertising.”

The Fight for the Future petition takes that idea and runs with it.

“To protect consumer privacy and market competition,” it says, “the FTC should revive structural separations as a policy tool to prevent the concentration of private power and the control of vital industries in the hands of a few tech executives.”

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