Google gets a slap on the wrist for violating Australian privacy law

Australia’s Privacy Commissioner Karen Curtis says  Google’s Wi-Spy snooping violated the law down under, but instead of punishing the company she asked for an apology and a promise to do the right thing going forward. Apparently that’s the most she could do.

It seems that under Australia’s current Privacy Act the commissioner cannot impose sanctions on a company if the commissioner initiated the investigation. As Curtis put it in her statement:

“My role is to work with the organisation to ensure ongoing compliance and best privacy practice.”

But if violations occur in the future there could be real consequences. She noted that the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended enforcement powers be strengthened and added:

“My Office supports these recommendations, and the Australian Government has announced its intention to adopt them.”

Under the headline “We’re sorry”  in the Official Google Australia Blog Alan Eustace, Senior VP, Engineering & Research wrote:

“In Australia, we have been working with the Privacy Commissioner to support her investigation into what happened. We welcome today’s conclusion of this investigation, and as a result we have committed to working even more closely with them going forward on the privacy implications of our product launches.

“We want to reiterate to Australians that this was a mistake for which we are sincerely sorry. Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do and we have to earn that trust every single day. We are acutely aware that we failed badly here.”

Now I think the apology just reveals the Google mindset: push the envelope, and when caught with fingers in the cookie jar, apologize. Don’t ask permission, you can always ask for forgiveness.

And for those like me, who think the only real way to get the Internet giant’s attention would be meaningful sanctions, there was this  part of Curtis’s statement that prompted hope Google will get what it deserves:

“Other privacy authorities and law enforcement agencies may still be investigating the collection of WiFi ‘payload’ data by Google. In view of those ongoing investigations I do not propose to comment in more detail.”

Let’s hope those authorities and agencies can do more than extract an apology and a promise to be good.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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