Google was fined $22.5 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating an earlier privacy settlement with the agency. The fine is the largest civil penalty ever levied by the commission. Google did not admit to violating the law in the settlement agreement. The F.T.C. is also investigating Google for antitrust violations.
David C. Vladeck, the director of the F.T.C.’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “The social contract has to be that if you’re going to hold on to people’s most private data, you have to do a better job of honoring your privacy commitments. And if there’s a message the commission is trying to send today, it’s that.” One of the commissioners, J. Thomas Rosch, filed a dissenting statement because in his opinion the commission should not have accepted Google’s denial of liability.
Google claimed that its actions had been unintentional and said that the issues had resulted from a change in Safari of which Google was unaware. The company said that it stopped tracking Safari users and showing them personalized ads when the issue was brought to the company’s attention. The commission has also accused Google of breaking the terms of a 2011 settlement over privacy issues related to defunct social networking tool Buzz.
Mr. Vladeck refused to accept Google’s explanation, citing other privacy violations about which Google has also said it was unaware, like collecting personal data with its Street View cars. Mr. Vladeck said, “As a regulator, it is hard to know which answer is worse – I didn’t know or I did it deliberately. We hope that the civil penalty we’re imposing here today and continued monitoring of Google’s performance by the commission and by others frankly will force Google to have a better sense of what’s going on.”
The F.T.C. has been cracking down on tech companies for privacy violations. Some analysts have questioned the commission’s power to police tech companies effectively, saying that federal regulators do not have sufficient financing or the legal authority to monitor and punish tech companies for privacy violations. Tech companies have repeatedly settled privacy violations with the commission in recent years.