Google apparently is ending an egregious privacy breach involving people who buy apps from its Google Play store using Google Wallet to pay. Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission with a copy to California Attorney General Kamala Harris about what Google was doing. The complaint alleged that the Internet giant was violating its privacy policies and its “Buzz” consent agreement with the FTC.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-GA, also questioned Google about what it was doing. Google was sending to apps developers the name, email address and address of people who bought apps on Google play. It tried to claim that the the information was necessary for the transaction, but that’s clearly not the case when talking about downloading an app from its app store. Neither Apple nor Microsoft provide such personal information about people who buy apps from their stores. Google’s response to Rep. Johnson, confirmed what Google was doing and actually showed it was unnecessary. Consumer Watchdog sent a second letter to the FTC with a copy to California Attorney General Harris when Google answered Rep. Johnson’s letter.
I’m glad the change is coming, but I’ve got questions.
What role did the Federal Trade Commission or the California Attorney General’s office play in this change? Why did Google only act when formal complaints were filed? Will there be fines?
Google has become a serial privacy violator. You’ll remember that new sooner was the ink dry on the “Buzz” consent agreement than it was caught hacking around the privacy settings on the Safari browser used on iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices. It ultimately cost Google a fine of $22.5 million, which is pocket change to a company that has annual revenue of around $50 billion. It’s like giving a $25 parking ticket to a person who makes $50,000 a year.
Google is simply figuring that fines are a cost — and a minor one at that — of doing business. In case you missed it, on Monday Germany hit Google with a $189,225 for the Wi-Spy incident where its Street View Cars sucked up emails, URLs, passwords, account numbers as they snapped photos around the world.
In describing the fine The New York Times‘ Claire Cain Miller wrote:
Regulators in Germany, one of the most privacy-sensitive countries in the world, unleashed their wrath on Google on Monday for scooping up sensitive personal information in the Street View mapping project, and imposed the largest fine ever assessed by European regulators over a privacy violation.
The penalty? $189,225.
Put another way, that’s how much Google made every two minutes last year, or roughly 0.002 percent of its $10.7 billion in net profit. It is the latest example of regulators’ meager arsenal of fines and punishments for corporations in the wrong. Academics, activists and even regulators themselves say fines that are pocket change for companies do little to deter them from misbehaving again, and are merely baked into the cost of doing business.
The fact Google is changing Google Wallet’s practices makes it clear Google violated the Buzz Agreement. Google claims that it is taking privacy seriously now that it is operating for 20 years under the Buzz Agreement. It isn’t and the regulators aren’t holding Google’s feet to the fire.
The company’s executives need to be held to account in a meaningful way. I’ve always argued the way to get corporate executives’ attention is to hit them with jail time when they flout the law. It’s not going to happen here, but a meaningful fine for the second Buzz violation sure would be nice.
Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and on Twitter.