The other day the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a strongly worded report condemning Google’s privacy violations and the company’s deliberate obstruction of an investigation into the gathering of sensitive data off personal computers.
The FCC was deeply disturbed by what Google did but they’re hands were pretty much tied and couldn’t take serious action against Google. The federal agency fined Google $25,000 for impeding their investigation and they said what Google did was technically not illegal. According to PCWorld, this is because the laws are not up-to-date with technology. What Google did was obviously an invasion of privacy and SHOULD be illegal but Google seems to have gotten away scot-free because there aren’t laws that protect Americans from criminals who steal their personal data off unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.
Anyway, I came across an article yesterday by the Mercury News stating that Google is about to be hit hard by another federal agency, this time it’s the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As you all should already know, the FTC has been in the middle of conducting their investigation on Google’s illegal circumvention of Apple’s Safari Web browser.
The Wall Street Journal exposed Google back in February for deliberately bypassing the privacy and security settings of Safari users. Apple set the default setting on its Safari browser to maximum security to protect their users from tracking companies – Google hated this and used a secret code to bypass this security setting. This exposed millions of Safari users to tracking for months without them every knowing about it. Immediately after the Journal released their story several lawsuits against Google popped up.
Now, according to the Mercury News, the major fine against Google is imminent. The newspaper spoke to a source who says that the FTC will take action against Google within a month. The FTC already has a consent order against Google which was put in place late last year. Google violated the privacy of their users when they launched their failed social networking tool called “Buzz”. After an investigation, Google agreed to a settlement that would require the company to regularly submit a compliance report to the FTC and they agreed to two decades of close monitoring from the FTC. Google also promised never to violate the privacy of their users or any company’s users – evidently they couldn’t keep their promise.
Google faces a fine of $16,000 per violation per day. There were millions of Apple users affected and victimized by this invasion of privacy so you can imagine that the fine could be colossal. Let’s hope the FTC puts Google in its place and hits them hard – Google definitely deserves it.
For more information:
PCWorld, “Google Says Snooping on Wi-Fi Networks Isn’t Illegal” – click here
Mercury News, “Google target of new federal privacy probe” – click here
Computerworld, “Privacy watchdog, lawmaker push for Google probe” – click here
The Register, “Google faces WHOPPING FTC fine for Safari privacy gaffe” – click here
The Hill, “FTC official: Sharing on social sites ‘can’t be forced’” – click here
As promised, I told you I would write about how a con artist and now a federal prisoner worked with American authorities to expose Google’s illegal activities that would eventually result in one of the largest business forfeitures in American history.
Google often likes to play the innocent company that just wants to make the world a better place act. They often talk about wanting to give users a better experience online and getting them what they need. Google even has that unofficial motto, “don’t be evil” (which they dropped in 2009, by the way).
Yet recent actions by Google contradict the innocent and friendly image concocted by crafty PR teams at Google, which is often regurgitated by some in the media.
According to the Department of Justice, Google became aware back in 2003 that shipments of prescription drugs from foreign countries into the United States to be sold to Americans is illegal. It violates several statutes, including the Controlled Substances Act – and not to mention, it puts the health and safety of consumers in real danger. Yet, Google did not modify its actions until 2009 – only when it found out that it was being investigated by the U.S. government.
In a statement to the media just after the controversy erupted, Google had this to say:
“…it’s obvious with hindsight that we shouldn’t have allowed these ads on Google in the first place. Given the extensive coverage this settlement has already received, we won’t be commenting further”
Yes, Google, it becomes obvious only after you have been caught red-handed. All those years in between, they were still cashing in on illegal activity and putting consumers at risk.
The con man who tipped federal agents of Google’s actions is named David Whitaker. Back in 2008 he was arrested in Mexico and brought back to the United States to face wire fraud, conspiracy and commercial bribery charges. In custody, he told the agents everything he did with Google and this led to government authorities to use Mr. Whitaker to catch Google in the act.
The four month sting operation against Google began in early 2009. While still in custody, Mr. Whitaker used a fake name (Jason Corriente) and a set up a fake website for his fake company. Eventually, the con- man was working directly with Google executives to buy ad space from Google.
Even though Google employees knew that it was wrong to let the undercover con artist buy ad space to sell drugs to Americans – including apparently a controversial abortion pill RU-486 that should only be taken at a doctor’s office – they still went out of their way to help him set up ads. The Google executives even allowed the phrase “no prescription needed” to be included next to the advertisement.
Mr. Whitaker says he had no problem in exposing Google, even though he says that he had grown to “like these people” who helped him sell drugs, because he “took ease in knowing that they…knew it was wrong”. He and Google have been working together for years and it was a win-win situation for both – even though they both knew their activities were illegal.
“Google’s employees were instrumental in bypassing policy regarding pharmacy verification,” Mr. Whitaker said. “The websites were blatantly illegal.”
The federal government eventually got enough evidence, from phone conversations and emails exchanges, to build a case against Google. It ultimately led to Google agreeing to pay the government half a BILLION dollars to settle the case in August 2011. The settlement agreement also included many admissions of guilt by Google.
This whole story about the involvement of the con man working with federal agents was first recently reported by the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. What’s interesting about this story is what it reveals about Google: 1) we now know just how greedy the company is; 2) we know that Google is willing to aid and abet criminals if it means that they can profit; 3) it shows how little Google cares about giving users the best experience; 4) it shows how Google is willing to put the health and safety of its users in jeopardy to gain profits; 5) and it also reveals how Google can be held accountable for the ads they place on their site, which raises the question of if they should also be held accountable for directing users to illegal websites and not just illegal ads. It puts a whole new perspective to the whole fight between copyright owners and Google.
It’s interesting that Megaupload Limited founder, Kim DotCom, was jailed just recently for allegedly directing users of his website to copyrighted material – but Google executives who put the lives of its users in danger basically got off scot-free. Even though Google was made to pay $500 million dollars in the settlement, it hardly makes a dent to the billions they have at their disposal. Interesting, indeed.
David Whitaker was initially facing a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison, but because he cooperated with federal authorities, he will now only have to serve for 6 years.
Tech website, PCWorld, has an article on this story – click here
Wall Steet Journal video on this story can be watched by clicking here