Skip to main content

Put teeth in Google privacy fines

By Marc Rotenberg, Special to CNN
April 29, 2013 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Investigations into Google's
Investigations into Google's "Street View" were launched in more than a dozen countries
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marc Rotenberg: Germany levied small fine on Google for gathering people's private info
  • Fine was less than $200,000. Google made $10 billion in 2010. Fine has no teeth, he says
  • Public agencies failing to strengthen laws on companies that threaten privacy, he says
  • Rotenberg: Proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights a good step toward enforcement

Editor's note: Marc Rotenberg is Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. He teaches information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center.

(CNN) -- Last week Germany levied a fine against Google for one of the biggest wiretapping violations in history. The fine? Less than $200,000. Google's net profits in 2012? More than $10 billion. Imagine a driver of a fancy car caught for speeding and then asked to pay a nickel. Google got off easier.

Over several years and in countries around the world, Google drove cars with cameras mounted on the roof through communities and residential neighborhoods. Google said that it was gathering images to improve its "Street View" mapping program. But Google was also secretly collecting information about Internet access points in private homes and intercepting personal communications across wi-fi networks.

Marc Rotenberg
Marc Rotenberg

A privacy official in Germany had suspected that this was happening, but was repeatedly reassured by Google that it wasn't. When the official actually removed the hard drive from a Google vehicle, the true story came out. Investigations were launched in more than a dozen countries. "Street View" became "Spy-Fi."

The Canadian privacy commissioner determined that the company had obtained medical records and financial records, private e-mails and passwords. In the United States, a group of attorneys general levied a $7 million fine against the company, after federal agencies in Washington failed to act. Google apologized, stopped collecting the wi-fi data (but not the location data) and promised to improve its privacy practices.

Last week, the German official who triggered the original investigation announced the 145,000-euro fine, almost the largest amount allowed under European law, though insignificant for a company the size of Google. The public official was clearly unhappy about the outcome and told The New York Times, "As long as violations of data protection law are penalized with such insignificant sums, the ability of existing laws to protect personal privacy in the digital world, with its high potential for abuse, is barely possible."

Google to pay $7 million in privacy case
2012: Digital Google trail under scrutiny
2012: Google responds to critics

As the public concern about privacy is increasing, the failure of public agencies to take forceful action is becoming a problem. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission announced important settlements with Facebook and Google back in 2011, but it has been reluctant to take any meaningful enforcement action since. Even after Google consolidated all of the data from across its 60 plus services last year into one data policy to "rule them all," the FTC remained silent.

The Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation of Street View but levied only a $25,000 fine, even less than the amount in Germany, and that was for Google's obstruction during the investigation.

Increasingly, Internet companies are advocating "self-regulation" and weak-willed politicians are telling users, "check your privacy settings, be careful what you post." In other words, you are on your own. That is terrible advice coming from those who know that users can do little to protect their data. User data is gathered surreptitiously, few users have the ability or time to know how it is collected, and even good privacy policies change quickly.

It was only Mr. Casper's persistence that made it possible to challenge Google's data collection practices. It would have been impossible for those whose wi-fi communications were intercepted to know that their data was gathered by Google, let alone enforce privacy rights against the company. That is why it is important for officials to pursue investigations, enforce laws and impose significant penalties when warranted.

The failure to enforce privacy laws is bad not only for Internet users, but also for smaller companies and innovative firms that are developing services that comply with privacy law. The success of "Privacy by Design," and other new approaches, depends on countries enforcing their laws. If they see their larger competitors get away with cutting corners, the message will be that they, too, can ignore the laws. This will lead to a vicious spiral that governments must avoid.

In Europe, governments recognize the need to update and strengthen privacy laws. Efforts are under way to improve privacy protections. That will help consumers and Internet users all around the world as companies adopt better safeguards for personal data.

In the United States, President Obama has called for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and recommended the adoption of new privacy law. It is a good, forward-looking proposal that builds on existing law and addresses a key concern of Internet users today. Another proposal now in California would give Internet users the right to know the information private firms collect about them. It is a clever approach to privacy that does not restrict data collection; it simply makes companies more accountable to users.

But it is not easy to enact new laws, particularly when large companies have so much influence over the political process. Still, there are many public officials who must share the frustration of Mr. Casper. Privacy protection without enforcement is no protection at all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Rotenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT