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Google’s Legal Woes Mount

Google, a company that many (myself very much included) consider the worldwide technology leader, has been increasingly making the headlines, but the news has not always good. Google’s computer systems have been targeted for cyberattacks, particularly a series of these attacks by the Chinese over the last two years or so. Then Google went head-to-head with the Chinese government over whether Google must provide information about Chinese dissidents’ use of its search engine and other services to this government. Most recently Google is facing an increasing amount of trouble concerning charges that in collecting information for various Google services, this technology giant massively infringed upon the privacy of individuals and organizations, and may have even broken national privacy laws.
The issue currently at stake concerns Google Street View, a service that collects information for other Google services such as Google Maps. Among the data that Street View has been obtaining since 2006 are not only photos, but data from open wireless networks, i.e., networks that require no authentication for access to them. Once the word that Google was obtaining data of this nature got out, an onslaught of legal and other activity against Google started. Examples include:
• An investigation in Germany appears to be headed towards filing criminal charges against Google for infractions of German privacy laws.
• Three US Congressmen recently sent a detailed letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt expressing concerns regarding Google’s collection of information in connection with Street View. These Congressmen are among a group of Congressmen pressing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether Google has violated federal wiretapping laws as well as the US Communications Act.
• Denmark, Ireland and Austria requested that Google destroy all data collected in these countries. Google has complied.
• An ISP in Massachusetts has filed a class action lawsuit against Google over alleged privacy violations and has requested that Google be prohibited from erasing the information it has harvested.
• Class action lawsuits against Google have been filed in both California and Oregon.

Google has responded by saying that it captured the data “inadvertently” and that the data consist of “data fragments” rather than more substantial data.

The trouble includes high profile drama. The German government demanded that Google hand over a hard disk containing the information Google had gathered by a deadline date, but Google refused to comply with this demand, saying that turning over the data would itself comprise a compromise of privacy. Speculation concerning Google’s motivation for refusing to cooperate continues to rise. Some believe that Google is playing for time while its lawyers and top executives try to determine what strategy they should take. Others believe that Google is “holding the line” as it did when China demanded information about dissidents. Still others believe that handing information over to Germany would only worsen Google’s chances in ensuing court cases and that Germany does not really have the power to force Google to turn over the information, anyway.

My take on this volatile series of events is that by all appearances, Google has gathered all types of information without really realizing the legal and other ramifications of doing so. In some countries, gathering the type of information Google has obtained and the way that Google has obtained it is not unlawful. In European Union (EU) countries, however, the opposite is true. EU nations have stringent privacy statutes, of which the EU Privacy Directive stands out as the anchor legislation in the privacy arena. Germany’s privacy legislation includes Datenschutz, a statute that prescribes fines and even imprisonment for inadequate protection of personally identifiable information. Google’s legal staff appears to more thoroughly investigate the legal implications of Street View and other information gathering services and functions in countries throughout the world. Google is thus likely to face many legal and other consequences. and one thing is sure—Google’s legal troubles have only just begun.

Google’s current predicament also illustrates that although the information age is producing an incredible amount of highly useful and interesting information that is widely distributed, there are hidden, potentially severe costs associated with making the effort to gather and provide this information. One of the greatest of these costs is the potential for violation of privacy and other laws in countries around the world. The costs versus benefits of gathering and distributing each type of information that an Internet information provider considers supplying to the public must be carefully weighed before any decision concerning whether or not to collect and provide that type of information is made.

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