What's your privacy worth? For Google, chump change

FTC's $22.5 million fine may be a drop in the bucket for Google, but it's a wake-up call for others in online advertising

It seems the Federal Trade Commission has finally located its cojones, at least when it comes to Google. According to the Wall Street Journal, the federales have decided to fine Google $22.5 million for ignoring the Do Not Track privacy settings of Safari browsers and leaving DoubleClick tracking cookies behind on their hard drives.

Google claims that bypassing Safari's anti-cookie settings was "inadvertent." Sound familiar? That's exactly how Google initially described hoovering up of some 600GB worth of data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks -- before it was discovered that this Wi-Fi spying was quite deliberate and quite deliberately ignored by multiple people on its Street View team.

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On one hand, $22.5 million is the largest penalty the FTC has ever levied on anyone. On the other, it also represents 0.0006 percent of Google's 2011 revenue of $38 billion (according to Google Calculator, natch).

For comparison's sake, let's say you're a professional making a comfortable salary of $100,000. That FTC fine would set you back a whopping $60. It's essentially a parking ticket.

The FTC could have fined Google up to $16,000 per violation per day, according to its charter. Let's say for easy math Safari has 5 percent of the U.S. browser market, or about 12 million users. The FTC could have fined Google $192 billion per day. That would certainly get Larry and Sergey's attention.

The problem is that, as Joe Stalin once said about the Pope, the FTC lacks tanks. To wring that kind of coin out of somebody, you really need a couple-three divisions of tanks to get your point across.

By contrast, it's a lot better than the $25,000 fine levied on Google for dicking the FTC around during its investigation of the Street View Wi-Fi spying debacle. Because the laws surrounding electronic surveillance were never written with Wi-Fi in mind, the feds weren't sure they could mount a real illegal eavesdropping case against an army of Google lawyers. And you got the distinct feeling their hearts really weren't in it.

But it's chicken feed compared to the $500 million Google agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Justice for carrying ads for Canadian pharmacies, which sell drugs for a fraction of their U.S. cost (a practice Google execs also claimed to be blissfully ignorant of, until the DOJ proved otherwise). Only God and Google know how many billions they made off that arrangement in the seven years before they got caught.

Get the message

My humble opinion: This fine was not really about Google. It was the FTC sending a message to other companies who decide they too can blithely ignore a consumer's browser settings and do whatever they want -- much as the Digital Advertising Alliance announced it would, after Microsoft said Internet Explorer 10 would (like Safari) ship with Do Not Track turned on by default.

The FTC is informing the ad networks, analytics companies, and real-time-bidding markets that it won't stand still and let this happen. While $22.5 mill is the kind of money you'd find underneath the couch cushions at the Googleplex, it would be significantly more than chump change to any of the 800 or so smaller fish that make up the online tracking world.

Is the FTC punishing Google enough or too much? Weigh in below or ping me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "What's your privacy worth? For Google, chump change," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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