FTC settlement with Google won't end privacy violations

Companies that live off user information will continue to test 'creepy' line

The settlement finalized Monday between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Google over the search giant's violations of user privacy last year in launching its social network, Google Buzz, will do little to curb privacy threats to Internet users.

Companies whose businesses are built upon gathering (and often selling) information about customers or users -- Google and Facebook being the most prominent and potentially dangerous examples -- will always be tempted to go "right up to the creepy line," to quote former Google CEO and current chairman Eric Schmidt.

Of course, people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who apparently believes "privacy" is an antiquated notion (i.e. one that gets in the way of his company making more money), would just as soon totally erase the "creepy line." After all, don't these "privacy" fetishists know that their bizarre obsession is hurting Facebook the economy? Besides, maybe it's the people who have something to hide from the rest of us who are a little creepy. You ever think of that?

So the online information collectors aren't going to be "scared straight" by the FTC-Google agreement, which in truth is vague and has little teeth. Specifically, it "bars (Google) from future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years."

The settlement, of course, is old news. It was agreed upon nearly seven months ago, but couldn't be finalized until the conclusion of a public comment period, which ended in early May.

The case revolved around Google's Buzz social networking service launched last year (and since killed off). In a bid to graft Buzz onto to accounts of some Gmail users, Google made public the Gmail contacts of those users. This sparked public outrage and prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center to file a complaint with the FTC.

The feds are making a big deal out of the fact that this is the "first time an FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers’ information." (Never mind that Google already had a privacy policy in place, which it trampled.)

Great. But what if Google violates any of the deal's terms? In that case, Google's executives probably would be prosecuted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Yeah, right. More like Google would be "hit" with a stiff multimillion-dollar fine> Which is sure to bring a company that will generate nearly $40 billion in revenue this year to its knees.

For companies such as Google and Facebook, "paying" for violating user policy is a minor cost of conducting a business that has tremendous upside. The FTC's settlement with Google does nothing to change that basic value proposition.

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