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Why is the FTC AWOL on Google Privacy?

Congress needs to conduct oversight hearings to learn why the FTC is apparently giving Google special treatment, and more specifically why the FTC inexplicably dropped its Google StreetView spi-fi privacy probe without any charges, before it even learned all the facts, and without any accountability mechanism in place to protect consumers or prevent repeat violations.

Google's wanton wardriving in 33 countries for over three years secretly recording people's WiFi transmissions, including full emails and passwords, arguably is the single broadest privacy breach in the Internet era. And the FTC did nothing. And the FTC sees no need for any further action. Amazing.

What's wrong with this picture? A lot. A better question might be what's right with the FTC-Google privacy enforcement picture?

 

  • How could Google convince the FTC to immediately and completely drop its investigation, just after publicly admitting that Google had misrepresented central facts of the case and misled investigators with false "assurances" from the beginning of the investigation, when this newly admitted deceit by Google prompts the FTC's enforcement peers -- 38 states and multiple countries (Canada, Spain, Germany, UK, etc.) -- to investigate deeper to discover what else they were misled about?
    • Why is the FTC such an outlier in ignoring Google's repeat deception when the instincts of most every other prosecutor or regulator is to dig deeper to discover what else Google has been lying about?
    • Why is the FTC so eager to protect Google more than consumers?
    • Why is the FTC brushing this under the rug?
      • Does Google's work for U.S. spy agencies and/or its exceptional political closeness with the Administration somehow warrant Google a free pass on privacy breaches?
      • In other words, is Big Brother Government secretly colluding with Big Brother Inc. to surveil everyone without permission or accountability?
  • Why did the FTC send a letter to Google's lawyer, and not to Google directly?
    • Why was the FTC not open and transparent in explaining to American consumers in a public statement why Google's much publicized privacy breach was not a privacy problem for consumers, and why specifically the FTC is so confident that there is no going forward risk here with no FTC oversight or enforcement deterrent?
  • Why is the FTC accepting blogged "assurances" from Google, when the FTC officially charged other companies with privacy wrongdoing and required ongoing FTC oversight of those company's practices?
    • What is the FTC's justification for a giving Google a free pass, when in similar circumstances, the FTC officially charged Twitter, a mortgage lender, Sears, or CVS Caremark?
    • If there are special circumstances that warrant Google different enforcement latitude than others, the FTC should explain them publicly to Congress so it is clear that the FTC is enforcing the rule of law and enforcing the law fairly.
  • Why would the FTC accept Google's "assurances" with no accountability mechanism, when "assurances" from Goldman Sachs, BP, Wall Street Banks, mortgage lenders, auto companies, etc. are not enough for the Administration?
    • What makes Google special that warrants it special treatment under the law?
    • Why do blogged unenforceable "assurances" from Google warrant a complete shutdown of an investigation with no more questions asked, when "assurances" from other companies draw snickers and result in them having the book thrown at them?
    • Why is Google the only company that can make a Federal investigation go away simply by blogging the equivalent of a "Lucy and the football" promise of: trust us, we won't do it yet again?
  • Has the FTC even bothered to closely examine Google's  so called "assurances" in its blog post to see if they actually protect consumers?
    • Why is the FTC allowing Google to self enforce, without any third party oversight or accountability mechanism?
    • Has the FTC now established an new FTC "Blog Assurance Doctrine" (BAD), where if a company blogs that they are really sorry and assures the blogosphere that they take their problem seriously, the FTC will drop any investigation or charges?

In sum, at a minimum, the FTC has a big perception problem here. Let's review:

First, Google's StreetView privacy breach is no isolated "mistake."

 

  • Google was ranked worst in the world on privacy by Privacy International.
  • Google is a serial privacy offender, with a culture of privacy negligence, and with a unique mission to make all information universally accessible.
  • Google has collected more private and sensitive information on more Americans than any entity in the world.
  • 38 states and many of the FTC's peers around the world: Canada, Spain, Germany, Italy, etc. have all reviewed similar evidence that the FTC has, and they are taking actions to protect consumers.
  • The FTC appears to have a growing track record of cutting Google special enforcement slack, Google-DoubleClick, Google-AdMob, two EPIC formal privacy complaints against Google, Google claiming it did no behavioral advertising then admitting it did, Google Buzz, Google StreetView Spi-fi, etc. ...

 

Second, the FTC's actions here appear inexplicable from the outside.

 

  • The FTC does not make a public statement, but sends a vacuous private letter to Google's lawyer allowing Google to leak it and spin it.
  • The FTC is unconcerned that Google admitted it misrepresented material facts and evidence, which had the effect of impeding investigations.
  • Google drops its investigation before it has all the facts, signaling it does not want to learn more.
  • The FTC brings no charges when similar violations from less-connected companies suffer formal charges from the FTC.
  • The FTC is basing the dropping of its investigation based on weakly-worded, unenforceable blog assurances from Google.
  • The FTC sees no need for going forward accountability, oversight or enforcement mechanism for Google's privacy practices.
  • Is this a bad joke?

 

Lastly, if the FTC has a legitimate explanation for all of this, they should put it out a public statement.

 

  • Moreover, Congress should have oversight hearings to ensure that the law is being fairly applied, that there is no undue influence on the enforcement process, and most importantly that Americans privacy is being protected by the FTC.

 

Congress knows polls show overwhelming bipartisan consensus among Americans for better protecting their privacy online. The Wall Street Journal's outstanding online privacy investigative series "What they Know" has also exposed how vulnerable Americans' privacy is.

 

  • The FTC should be ramping up its overall online privacy enforcement, not abdicating it when it comes to Google.

 

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