Google's Privacy Problem

Google's Privacy Problem

Earlier this week, Google agreed to pay $17 million to states in a settlement over privacy violations stemming from the unauthorized tracking of users. Google, through DoubleClick (its advertising platform), tracks users' Internet browsing through cookies in order to serve them relevant advertisements. Some browsers, including Apple's Safari, give users the option to block cookies, shielding them from the prying eyes of Google. The settlement yesterday stemmed from the allegation that Google ignored Safari requests to block cookies and continued to track users against their will.

This isn't the first time Google has found itself in trouble for violating consumers' privacy. Last August, the Federal Trade Commission fined Google $22.5 million for the same Safari tracking issue. Before that, Google came under fire for its new privacy policy, under which the company consolidated its databases, allowing for users' behavior to be tracked across multiple products (such as the Google search engine and Gmail).

In 2010, it was revealed that Google's Streetview cars had been collecting data on consumers via their wireless networks. As the cars drove up and down streets, taking photos, they were also using unsecured wireless networks to collect e-mails, passwords, photographs, chat messages, and plenty of other sensitive data. Google was then using this data to improve its location-based products. This past September, a judge ruled that Google broke U.S. laws with these practices, paving the way for further legal action. This wi-fi snooping was of particular concern to European regulators, with Germany and other countries imposing fines on Google for the violations.

Google has had other consumer problems as well. For instance, Google has been accused by several critics (including the American Consumer Institute) of manipulating its search results to favor its own products over those of its competitors. As a result of its many acquisitions, it controls more of the search market than ever before. This includes the travel search market with its acquisition of ITA Software, which powers the search behind websites such as Kayak, Orbitz, Travelocity and others.

For a company that took in over $50 billion in revenue last year, $17 million is less than a slap on the wrist. It's more of a public-relations matter than anything else, and even in that regard it's sure to fade quickly. In a time when private data is consistently being breached and government agencies have continually been under fire for accessing consumer information at major tech companies, consumer privacy should be of the utmost concern. We should be wary of companies that bend, and break, the rules, especially at the expense of the consumer.

Zack Christenson writes on digital-tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.

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