The weather reports for Northern Europe continue to forecast stormy and unsettled times, coming on top of a record period of miserable wind, rain and cool temperatures. After a pretty awful May and June, it looks like July will be no different. At least this should give us some insight into how Google must be feeling right now.
Two weather fronts continue to batter the Mountain View stronghold of Google. The first relates to the antitrust complaints and investigations the company faces. For the time being, there is no sign that Google has submitted a package of proposals capable of meeting the antitrust concerns of the European Commission. Its failure to publish its recent offer to the Commission looks like a lack of confidence that it can head off the damaging adoption of preliminary findings by the EU that Google has unlawfully abused its dominant market position. At the same time, antitrust investigations in other parts of the world seem to be picking up pace with reports this week noting that the Competition Commission of India has begun to investigate Google’s business practices as well – not forgetting ongoing activity in Argentina and South Korea.
Not only was this in clear disregard of users’ choices with respect to the use of sensitive personal information, it was an aggressive and hostile act with respect to a leading competitor. It looks like Google was also in breach of promises made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at the time of the Buzz debacle that the company would not misrepresent its privacy practices to users. (Why would anyone need to make that promise anyway?).
However, once Google’s circumvention of Apple’s Safari browser settings first came to light, Google denied culpability and attempted to explain away its conduct as a “complicated … industry practice.” Google also claimed that the ad cookies “collected no personal information.” Neither excuse holds water. Consumers’ information was harvested even while these assurances were made. Yet again Google has been caught red handed in another classic case of Doublespeak.
Although this would be the largest fine ever imposed by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations, in order to really make headway it is crucial for other authorities to also draw the conclusion that Google has no real interest in playing by the rules and indeed has actively tried to divert scrutiny away from its activities.
Although increasingly regulators companies and consumers are beginning to peer through this greying veneer. European Data Protection Authorities have opened investigations into abusive privacy practices are with Google being accused of providing “incomplete or approximate” responses in the context of a formal investigation by the French data protection authority. Meanwhile a YouGov survey, released today, noted that market concerns and janusliek behaviour have significantly damaged Google’s brand perception.
Google has also been accused of obstructing investigations by the South Korean competition authorities and the Texas Attorney General. In April 2012, the US Federal Communications Commission fined Google $25,000 after concluding the company deliberated impeded an investigation into Spy-Fi, the Google project that scooped up emails, passwords and other personal information transmitted over unsecured wireless networks in homes located around the world.
Such behaviour is genuinely unusual. It seems to show not only that Google has the market power to behave as it wants but also a real reluctance, or inability, to comply with the letter of the law and to engage responsibly with Government authorities. It is difficult to believe that each incident is indeed merely a minor misunderstanding or a mistake. Perhaps instead it points towards the very culture of the company, which seems to encourage this dismissive attitude towards both authority and the average consumer.
With Google repeatedly getting caught doing things that damage the reputation of the whole online ecosystem, this can only mean that the stormy weather is set to continue.
The ICOMP Secretariat