In a recent New York Times article, Michael Copps, the former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, conceded, "The [technology] industry has gotten more powerful, the technology has gotten more pervasive and it's getting to the point where we can't do too much about it."
Copps was lamenting Google's refusal to cooperate with federal regulators investigating the tech giant's unethical and likely illegal data scooping practices. The story broke in 2010 that Google Street View cars were taking much more than pictures: They were stealing people's personal data from local Wi-Fi networks, including emails, IP addresses and text messages, then storing them. These personal violations occurred in over a dozen countries for more than three years and affected thousands if not millions of individuals. At first, Google said the code written to collect all this data was a mistake by a rogue engineer. But under pressure from the FCC, Google later admitted that senior managers were aware of the controversial practices. Sound familiar, Mr. Murdoch?
If I walked around my neighborhood with digital eavesdropping gear and stole everyone's proprietary information like Google did, I would be arrested. So how can a massive corporation get away with it when an individual would immediately be held accountable?
The technology industry's contempt for consumer privacy has increased exponentially in the past few years and shows no signs of slowing. Congress and the FCC need to step in and start doing their jobs before it's too late. If they don't, consumers will be more vulnerable than ever to the unchecked and intrusive power of technology companies, especially those whose business models are contingent on exploiting consumers' personal data.
The U.S. government also needs to follow Europe's lead, where regulators in several countries have made visible progress defending consumer privacy rights. When Google refused to fulfill the German government's request to inspect a Street View car, regulators stood their ground until Google eventually caved. Although it was a small step, and Google still tried to impede the process, it was a much-needed start. Several European countries continue to bombard Google with requests for information about Street View practices, hoping to complete their inquiries.
Meanwhile in the United States, the FCC fined Google a paltry $25,000 for obstructing their Street View car investigation, less than 25 percent of a mid-level software engineer's salary. Then the FCC threw in the towel and dropped the case. If European regulators are trying to kick in the door, U.S. regulators seem afraid to approach it.
Fortunately, a coalition of more than 40 state attorney generals is pursuing its own case against Google. In addition, consumers have filed over a dozen civil lawsuits and are applying for class action status.
In defense of its practices, Google cynically argues that data scooping is legal in the United States. However, in response to the FCC's inquiry, Google's lawyers said they couldn't show investigators the data they collected because doing so would violate privacy and wiretapping laws. In other words: We can't share this information we collected about people because it might re-break the law we have already broken. If that isn't a double standard, I don't know what is.
It's clear the U.S. government has buckled under the pressure of Google's influential lobbying machine. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is a close adviser to President Obama and the company spent nearly $10 million on Washington lobbying in 2011 alone, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. The government's fumbling of the Street View investigation is strikingly similar to how Wall Street escaped any real reform after their illegal and toxic business practices caused the 2008 recession. To this day, the Wall Street giants claim they don't need to be regulated; the financial markets can regulate themselves. Google makes a similar rationalization and the results will be equally disastrous unless fundamental change occurs.
Last month, the FTC fined Google $22.5 million for yet another, but unrelated, violation when Google decided to bypass Apple's Safari browser's privacy settings in order to have greater control over advertising. The fine is a record for the FTC. But for a company with close to $50 billion in cash on hand, the penalty is insignificant.
If Google emerges from the Street View scandal unscathed, because Congress and the FCC won't hold them accountable for their actions, consumer privacy abuses will spiral out of control. Our government should be working to safeguard the interests of the American people, not American corporations. Otherwise, we might as well surrender all our personal data to Google because they will find a way to take it, with or without our permission.