Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth - InformationWeek

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Thomas Claburn
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Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth

FTC privacy fine represents less than a day's profits for Google. But if you care about privacy, you have options.

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The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday revealed that Google has agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle charges that the company misrepresented its claim that it would not place cookie tracking files on the computers of users of Apple's Safari browser.

The settlement was reported last month, before the FTC commissioners had signed off on the deal.

For the FTC, the main issue is that Google's actions violated an earlier privacy settlement. Thus the fine is largely about saving face. Agency chairman Jon Leibowitz notes that the penalty is "record-setting."

However, FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch in a dissenting statement said the amount is a pittance as far as Google is concerned. "$22.5 million represents a de minimis amount of Google's profit or revenues," he said, using the legal term for too small to matter in a given context.

[ Want to know more about the backstory? Read Google FTC Privacy Settlement Awaits Approval. ]

Brian Kennish, ex-Google engineer and founder of privacy software company Disconnect, offered via Twitter perhaps the most succinct assessment of the FTC and its settlement: A picture of a toothless man.

The settlement is a win for Google. The "record-setting" fine is less than Google's average daily profit in 2011 (about $32 million). For a person making $50,000 annually, the settlement amount is roughly comparable to a $100 speeding ticket, before taxes.

Better still, settlement includes no admission of guilt. As Rosch complains, the agreement stipulates that "[Google] denies any violation of the FTC Order, any and all liability for the claims set forth in the Complaint, and all material allegations of the Complaint save for those regarding jurisdiction and venue."

Had Google admitted guilt, that fact could have been used in other litigation against the company. And Google is facing a lot of litigation, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

So Google will pay the fine and the FTC will accept that Google did nothing wrong. Everybody wins, except for Internet users, who aren't likely to have any more privacy than they had previously.

And ultimately, that's okay because most Internet users don't really care about privacy. They'd rather rely on free, ad-supported Internet services and social networks.

For those who do care about privacy, there are options. But those options may come with a cost, either in terms of money, diminished capabilities, or inconvenience. Here are a few:

Use a search engine that doesn't track, like Duck Duck Go or Ixquick. (Just don't expect these to be as comprehensive, broadly useful, or responsive as Google or Bing.)

Use a paid email service and make sure the service provider doesn't sell user data. Or learn how to run your own mail server. (Just don't expect it to be as secure as a server run by Google, Microsoft, or some other company that has people watching it 24/7.)

Support efforts to provide alternatives to ad-supported social networks and services, like Diaspora and App.Net. (But don't expect your non-geek friends to join your social network.)

Rely on paid backup services like CrashPlan or SpiderOak (in addition to a local backup) rather than trying to stay within the free tier of services like Google Drive, iCloud, or SkyDrive. (Just don't expect the convenience of surrendering to Apple, Google, or Microsoft for a vertically integrated solution.)

Use Firefox, even though you may prefer Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer. Turn the knobs to provide as much privacy as you desire. (Pray that your favorite websites work without cookies and JavaScript.)

Block ads. This will either encourage free services to erect paywalls (no more ad tracking), prompt a software arms war to block access to ad blockers (no more ad tracking, but no more content either), or force content companies to declare bankruptcy (no more ad tracking, the Internet becomes a paid service of Lexis Nexis, and the cadre of newly unemployed software engineers can finally tackle problems that matter to the human race, like improving energy efficiency and food production, instead of competing for the attention of Web surfers).

If you want to penalize Google beyond the FTC's wrist slap, go ahead. Take a stand. Make a statement. Pursuing privacy may have a cost, but each of us owes it to ourselves and to the rest of the Internet community to treat privacy as if it's worth something. Because if we don't, no one else will.

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Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/12/2012 | 11:28:30 PM
re: Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth
In an industry that's raking in $31 Billion dollars a year (just ask the IAB, they know these things), a $22.5 Million dollar fine is a joke.

Once people start to realize that Google and Facebook (among others) are ad serving platforms, their businesses survive on advertising revenue, and take steps to make sure that neither capitalizes on their data - think about it for a minute, the data that you're giving them for free is making someone at Google or Facebook a millionaire...

Another option for people that isn't listed here would be to use Internet Explorer 10 with the "Do Not Track" turned on by default.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Apprentice
8/10/2012 | 6:38:22 PM
re: Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth
You should never need to know how to dig into browser settings to opt out of tracking of any kind. Companies like Google that REPEATEDLY violate privacy to increase profits need to to be hit real hard with fines.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/10/2012 | 2:59:12 PM
re: Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth
Why should Google be fined?

I agree that Privacy is important.

These points seemed to keep being forgotten:
1. The complaints regard primarily Opt-In Google Services
2. Any install from Google and especially Opt-In Services are accompanied by an obvious and clear notice by Google saying in effect " Please read this, it is important ! This is not your normal YADA, YADA !"
3. I believe the BIGGER problem is that companies need to listen much better to users (clients) because many user interfaces still, in the infamous Jobs critique - "Suck". (including Apples).

And I do think using technology to try and glean this information is less than effective. BETTER that top executives of companies get down from their ivory towers, once a day, and visit Customer Service and Tech Support and ask a simple Questions: What are customers saying today? What are they complaining about? This IS useful information!

If you want to jump on companies for Privacy mishandling try clicking on the link on your next Flash Update to see what their privacy policy is. 1st youG«÷ll get a very long list of Adobe Products. Then if you still care, find Adobe Flash product in that ridiculous and chest puffing list. Then click on the statement. YouG«÷ll find that the language is ONLY about AdobeG«÷s rights and nothing about you. Yah, they really care about YOUR PRIVACY.

PRESS: Pick the right targets please. And hopefully the clueless government blokes (all over the world) will stay out of what they donG«÷t understand.
Hey There Dude
Hey There Dude,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/10/2012 | 2:07:54 PM
re: Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth
3.79 hours of revenue. Ouch. LOL.
But let's put this speeding ticket violation in perspective. They just wanted to show you ads that were relevant to YOU. Not exactly peering into your bedroom. Let's keep this in perspective.
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