France Fines Google Over Wi-Spy

France’s privacy watchdog has just fined Google 100,000 euros ($142,000) as a result of the Internet giant’s Wi-Spy activities. It may not be a lot to a  company whose worldwide annual sales are around $25 billion a year, but it’s the biggest fine the regulator has issued.

It’s the first fine to be imposed against Google in the Wi-Spy scandal, in which its Street View Cars gathered private data from Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries around the world.  The top fine the French National Commission for Computing and Liberties (CNIL) could have imposed was, 150,000 euros, according to The Financial Times.

“They were not always willing to cooperate with us, they didn’t give us all the information we asked for, like the source code of all devices in the Google cars,” Yann Padova, CNIL’s executive director told the Associated Press. “They were not always very transparent.”

Part of Google’s problem is that its executives have continued to change the story about what happened. First they denied payload data was gathered; then they said it was, but it was only fragmentary; and finally they acknowledged entire e-mails, passwords and website addresses had been obtained and stored.

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt needs to testify under oath about what happened and  why it did.

Professor Joel Reidenberg, an expert on Internet privacy at Fordham University in New York told the Financial Times that the French action was significant:

“By imposing one of the largest fines ever issued in France, the CNIL is also sending a signal to its counterparts in Europe that data protection authorities should step up their enforcement activities since the same activity occurred elsewhere in Europe. This is a significant case because it sends a powerful message that the CNIL is serious about enforcement and is willing to use its enhanced authority.”

In the United States, the FTC investigated the incident but closed its case after Google  appointed Alma Whitten to serve as Google’s director of privacy across privacy and engineering;  promised to enhance its privacy training for engineers and other groups; and said it would add a new process to its existing review system.

The FTC concluded that the scandal did not break laws the commission is charged with enforcing.  The FCC is still investigating as are 30 state attorneys general.  Let’s hope they follow France’s lead.

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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