France Fines Google Over Wi-Spy

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France's privacy watchdog has just fined Google 100,000 euros ($142,000) as a result of the Internet giant's Wi-Spy activities. It may not be a lot to a  company whose worldwide annual sales are around $25 billion a year, but it's the biggest fine the regulator has issued.

It's the first fine to be imposed against Google in the Wi-Spy scandal, in which its Street View Cars gathered private data from Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries around the world.  The top fine the French National Commission for Computing and Liberties (CNIL) could have imposed was, 150,000 euros, according to The Financial Times.

"They were not always willing to cooperate with us, they didn't give us all the information we asked for, like the source code of all devices in the Google cars," Yann Padova, CNIL's executive director told the Associated Press. "They were not always very transparent."

Part of Google's problem is that its executives have continued to change the story about what happened. First they denied payload data was gathered; then they said it was, but it was only fragmentary; and finally they acknowledged entire e-mails, passwords and website addresses had been obtained and stored.

Google's CEO Eric Schmidt needs to testify under oath about what happened and  why it did.

Professor Joel Reidenberg, an expert on Internet privacy at Fordham University in New York told the Financial Times that the French action was significant:

“By imposing one of the largest fines ever issued in France, the CNIL is also sending a signal to its counterparts in Europe that data protection authorities should step up their enforcement activities since the same activity occurred elsewhere in Europe. This is a significant case because it sends a powerful message that the CNIL is serious about enforcement and is willing to use its enhanced authority.”

In the United States, the FTC investigated the incident but closed its case after Google  appointed Alma Whitten to serve as Google's director of privacy across privacy and engineering;  promised to enhance its privacy training for engineers and other groups; and said it would add a new process to its existing review system.

The FTC concluded that the scandal did not break laws the commission is charged with enforcing.  The FCC is still investigating as are 30 state attorneys general.  Let's hope they follow France's lead.

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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