Germany fines Google as Facebook, Microsoft launch privacy campaigns

A German regulatory agency has fined Google for violations of privacy connected to the company’s Street View service, the Associated Press reports:

Hamburg’s state data protection agency said Monday that Google admitted collecting data including emails, passwords, photos and chat protocols from 2008-2010 as it prepared to launch its Street View service. Google says it never intended to store personal data and the agency says it has been deleted.

Agency head Johannes Caspar says ‘company internal control mechanisms failed seriously’ at Google but the maximum fine possible was 150,000 euros which was “unlikely...to have a deterring effect.” Google earned $3.3 billion in the first quarter.

The $189,000 German fine follows a much larger settlement last month between Google and U.S. state attorneys general investigating Street Views. The states won $7 million and other concessions. While the company did not admit to violating any laws and claimed it never used the data, some consumer advocates were argued that the fine was too low, AP reported:

“The project leaders never wanted this data, and didn’t use it or even look at it. We’re pleased to have worked with Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and the other state attorneys general to reach this agreement,” spokeswoman Nadja Blagojevic said in a statement. . .

Many of the cookies placed on our computer to track internet use are put there by sites we’ve never visited. Craig Timburg shows us how these third-party cookies work and explains Firefox’s experiment to stop them. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

American Consumer Institute President Steve Pociask issued a statement saying, “Google gets off easy once again with a paltry $7 million fine to over 30 states for collecting personal consumer information from unsecured WiFi networks. With revenue of $100 million a day, the fine is just a drop in the bucket and not enough to deter bad behavior.” (Read more about the U.S. settlement here.)

At the same time, Google’s largest competitors are working to persuade users they are committed to privacy. Microsoft launched a new advertising campaign this week on the issue, The Washington Post reported:

As part of its new initiative, the tech giant has put out a quiz asking people to assess their attitudes about online privacy. The spectrum goes from the unconcerned “Casual Surfer” to those who say “Privacy Please.”

Mary Snapp, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft, said that the quiz is supposed to get people talking about their attitudes toward online privacy.

“It assesses how much you are interested in managing access to your information online,” she said in an interview. “It enables you to talk about privacy choices with your friends and family.”

Facebook joined with a group of state attorneys general last week to announce a public education program, saying they want to teach young people about protecting their information online, The Post reported:

Facebook will post the announcements on its Facebook Safety page, while state attorneys general will do the same on their own Facebook pages and official Web sites. “We hope this campaign will encourage consumers to closely manage their privacy and these tools and tips will help provide a safer online experience,” [Maryland state attorney general Doug] Gansler said in a Facebook release. Facebook will also release a video answering top questions it has heard from teachers, parents and teens about online privacy, bullying and Internet safety. Those participating in the initiative will also distribute a tip sheet on what users can do to protect their online privacy.”

(Read more about the program here.)

In another development in the debate over privacy the House passed a bill last week that would allow businesses and the federal government to share some data. The legislation is aimed at preventing cyberattacks, but President Obama has threatened to veto the proposal, arguing that it would undermine consumer privacy.

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Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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