Big news, everyone! Over the course of several years, Google violated the privacy of millions by gobbling up gigabytes of private user data from WiFi networks while its Street View cars drove by people's homes, and now it has to pay a big fine for it in Germany. It's a big offense, and there are big consequences for big offense. Big! Big! Big!
Big is very relative term. The German Google fine — about $190,000 — sounds big because it's probably a multiple what you make in a year. However, that figure amounts to less 1/200th of what Google makes in a given day. The company's latest earnings report showed $3.35 billion in profit last quarter which amounts to a little over $37 million a day if you round the quarter down to 90 days. Again, we're talking about big numbers here. That fine's got a lot of zeroes. But the numbers aren't as big to a company that deals in eight-figure profits on a daily basis.
It's hardly news that Google has a lot of money. The company's cash pile is nearly $50 billion tall and growing by the day. However, it's really starting to feel like the search giant is just buying its way out of trouble, especially when it comes to privacy violations. This is not a new issue.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hit Google with a fine in the United States for impeding its investigation into the Street View data-snatching case, an offense that Google denied at the time. This came after Google publicly declared that it was "mortified by what happened" in a separate privacy-related Federal Trade Commission probe from 2010. Google talked its way out of the FTC inquiry, but the FCC nailed them last year. The punishment? A $25,000 fine.
Well, that's nice. Google accidentally steals personal data from private Wi-Fi networks, obstructs federal investigators from the facts and failed to take the blame, and they get fined the equivalent of a week's dessert at the free employee cafeteria in their palatial California headquarters? I'm making a guestimate on the cost of a week's dessert at the Googleplex, but you get the point.
The cash money penalties kept coming, though. Earlier this year, Google agreed to a $7 million settlement with the attorneys general of 38 states over the Street View WiFi spying. (That's a little less than $185,000 per state.) To better educate employees about privacy and consumers about securing their WiFi network served as a footnote on the settlement. "The $7 million penalty is pocket change for Google," said Consumer Watchdog privacy project director John Simpson said after authorities announced settlement. "Asking Google to educate consumers about privacy is like asking the fox to teach the chickens how to ensure the security of their coop."
The government's not afraid to hit Google with real fines, though. Last year, in the midst of all this Street View business, the FTC slapped the search giant with the largest fine its ever levied: $22.5 million. The year before, Google got put on the spot by the Department of Justice in a dodgy prescription drug case, and the company admitted that it improperly assisted Canadian online pharmacy advertisers to run advertisements that targeted the United States through AdWords." The fine? At $500 million, it was "one of the largest financial forfeiture penalties in history" according to the Department of Justice.
What's crazy about comparing those very big numbers to the relatively tiny numbers associated with the Street View case is the fact that all of these fines seem small compared to raw quantity of cash that Google handles on a regular basis. Yah yah yah—Google's rich and powerful and everybody knows it. Google's so rich it can roll out the one of the world's fastest fiber optic networks in a few random American city just for the fun of it. Google's so powerful they can invent geeky, probably privacy-violating computer glasses and convince people to pay them $1,500 to become a beta tester. Google's so rich and powerful that record-setting fines barely register on its balance sheet.
There is a cheeky upside to all this nonsense. Unlike the college students who've been fined with six-figure sums for downloading a few songs, Google can actually afford to pay those fines. And let's be honest. These days, the government could use the money.