Google $22.5 Million FTC Fine Has No Teeth

FTC privacy fine represents less than a day's profits for Google. But if you care about privacy, you have options.
Google I/O: 10 Awesome Visions
Google I/O: 10 Awesome Visions
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The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday revealed that Google has agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle charges that the company misrepresented its claim that it would not place cookie tracking files on the computers of users of Apple's Safari browser.

The settlement was reported last month, before the FTC commissioners had signed off on the deal.

For the FTC, the main issue is that Google's actions violated an earlier privacy settlement. Thus the fine is largely about saving face. Agency chairman Jon Leibowitz notes that the penalty is "record-setting."

However, FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch in a dissenting statement said the amount is a pittance as far as Google is concerned. "$22.5 million represents a de minimis amount of Google's profit or revenues," he said, using the legal term for too small to matter in a given context.

[ Want to know more about the backstory? Read Google FTC Privacy Settlement Awaits Approval. ]

Brian Kennish, ex-Google engineer and founder of privacy software company Disconnect, offered via Twitter perhaps the most succinct assessment of the FTC and its settlement: A picture of a toothless man.

The settlement is a win for Google. The "record-setting" fine is less than Google's average daily profit in 2011 (about $32 million). For a person making $50,000 annually, the settlement amount is roughly comparable to a $100 speeding ticket, before taxes.

Better still, settlement includes no admission of guilt. As Rosch complains, the agreement stipulates that "[Google] denies any violation of the FTC Order, any and all liability for the claims set forth in the Complaint, and all material allegations of the Complaint save for those regarding jurisdiction and venue."

Had Google admitted guilt, that fact could have been used in other litigation against the company. And Google is facing a lot of litigation, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

So Google will pay the fine and the FTC will accept that Google did nothing wrong. Everybody wins, except for Internet users, who aren't likely to have any more privacy than they had previously.

And ultimately, that's okay because most Internet users don't really care about privacy. They'd rather rely on free, ad-supported Internet services and social networks.

For those who do care about privacy, there are options. But those options may come with a cost, either in terms of money, diminished capabilities, or inconvenience. Here are a few:

Use a search engine that doesn't track, like Duck Duck Go or Ixquick. (Just don't expect these to be as comprehensive, broadly useful, or responsive as Google or Bing.)

Use a paid email service and make sure the service provider doesn't sell user data. Or learn how to run your own mail server. (Just don't expect it to be as secure as a server run by Google, Microsoft, or some other company that has people watching it 24/7.)

Support efforts to provide alternatives to ad-supported social networks and services, like Diaspora and App.Net. (But don't expect your non-geek friends to join your social network.)

Rely on paid backup services like CrashPlan or SpiderOak (in addition to a local backup) rather than trying to stay within the free tier of services like Google Drive, iCloud, or SkyDrive. (Just don't expect the convenience of surrendering to Apple, Google, or Microsoft for a vertically integrated solution.)

Use Firefox, even though you may prefer Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer. Turn the knobs to provide as much privacy as you desire. (Pray that your favorite websites work without cookies and JavaScript.)

Block ads. This will either encourage free services to erect paywalls (no more ad tracking), prompt a software arms war to block access to ad blockers (no more ad tracking, but no more content either), or force content companies to declare bankruptcy (no more ad tracking, the Internet becomes a paid service of Lexis Nexis, and the cadre of newly unemployed software engineers can finally tackle problems that matter to the human race, like improving energy efficiency and food production, instead of competing for the attention of Web surfers).

If you want to penalize Google beyond the FTC's wrist slap, go ahead. Take a stand. Make a statement. Pursuing privacy may have a cost, but each of us owes it to ourselves and to the rest of the Internet community to treat privacy as if it's worth something. Because if we don't, no one else will.

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