General practice area category

Google to Pay FCC Miniscule Penalty for its Failure to Comply with Investigation

  |   Thursday, July 12, 2012

By Alison Kwan

Most people know about Google’s Street View project, and many people have even seen Google’s cars, with large cameras mounted onto their roofs, driving around their neighborhoods. Google uses those cars to snap images of the street, which are then used in Google Maps to provide panoramic views of streets around the world in Google Maps. What many people never realized was that Google’s cars were also equipped with software, which according to the official FCC report released April 30, 2012, collected “names, addresses, telephone numbers, URLs, passwords, e-mail, text messages, medical records, video and audio files, and other information” from “open” (i.e., non-encrypted and non-password protected) WiFi networks. Google’s data collection practices have become a source of concern for the FCC and present a new frontier of debate in Internet Law.

Upon learning about this data collection, the FCC began investigating Google’s conduct. However, the investigation answered few questions, and ultimately, the FCC declined to take any enforcement action against Google for violations of Section 705(a) of the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits a person from using an intercepted radio transmissions and communications, due to a lack of evidence.

In large part, this lack of evidence resulted from Google’s refusal to produce requested documents and information. Among other things, the Google engineer in charge of the project, cited his Fifth Amendment right and declined to respond to the FCC. Google also failed to respond to inquiries about its knowledge of the data collection. As a result of Google’s conduct in connection with the investigation, the FCC fined Google $25,000, saying the online search leader impeded the investigation.

Based on this lack of evidence, the FCC turned to investigations conducted in foreign countries, including Canada, France, and the Netherlands. Those investigations confirmed that the Wi-Fi data Google had collected sensitive personal information.

Despite these findings, the FCC determined that because Google collected and accessed unencrypted data as opposed to encrypted data, there was no violation of section 705(a). Any encrypted data collected was neither reviewed nor accessed, according to the evidence Google provided. Because Google failed to provide sufficient evidence, the FCC could not find a violation of section 705(a).

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