FTC spanks Google for tracking users without their consent

The $22.5 million fine is the largest in FTC history, but its symbolic value is worth far more.

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The FTC could have fined Google much more – up to $16,000 per violation per day. Multiply that by the millions of Safari users and the months that Google cookies tracked these users against their will, and we’re talking serious money. But then Google probably would have fought it, and the FTC would have to exhaust its limited legal resources in fighting back. Now Google can pay what amounts to a parking ticket and move on without being forced to admit any wrongdoing. And the FTC gets to tell smaller ad firms that Big Fed is watching.

Naturally, this rubs some people the wrong way. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes pretty much any form of government restriction on business, claims the FCC sanction “sends an ominous warning” that will “chill Internet innovation and hurt online startups.”

If by “Internet innovation” they mean “finding innovative ways to track users across the Internet against their will and then lying about it,” then I hope the CEI is correct. That’s exactly the kind of thing the FTC fine is supposed to chill. Because we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing over the past three years, from ad networks creating Zombie Flash cookies to deliberately ignore Do Not Track cookies, to allegedly anonymous data collection that ends up capturing email addresses and other personal data, to Facebook’s sharing of your information with both third-party apps and advertisers in violation of its own privacy policies.

In almost every instance, those companies were caught in a lie by researchers or journalists and forced to recant after pressure from regulators. They didn’t tattle on themselves. So how can anyone possibly still argue that self regulation is working? Let’s hope it gets nice and chilly on the Internet for things like that.

The Google fine is more symbolic than anything. But it’s the right symbol at the right time.

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