The European Union is notorious for establishing strict precedents regarding Internet laws. It primarily wants other countries to follow its lead of strong punishments and secondly wants to teach tech companies that they can’t get away with unlawful business practices. These goals resulted in the latest fine against Google for its Wi-Fi data collection.
A German regulator fined Google 145,000 euros (about $189,230) for collecting Wi-Fi data as their street view cars drove around the country. According to Bloomberg, when Google’s cars crawled through Germany taking photographs they inadvertently picked up passwords, photos and other personal data. It sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel: a monopolistic corporation trolling the streets, taking private information and reading emails of clueless citizens.
Google claimed that the collection was an accident. They didn’t use the data – they didn’t even want it. They made their case to the EU, who found the security breach to be an accident, and levied an appropriate fine.
Depending on whether you’re an EU government official or a Google finance executive, the 145,000 euro fine means two totally different things. The maximum fine that Johannes Caspar, Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection, could have levied was 150,000 euros for “negligent data protection breach.” The German government sees the fine as almost charging the maximum penalty.
Google sees this as chump change. Their execs are apologetic, but they’re not sweating the loss of the 145K. The fine makes up 0.002 percent of their annual net profit. Google could have a good day on the stock market and make the money back. Had Casper determined that the violations were intentional, Google could have been fined up to 300K euros. That’s still not much of a dent in their $10.7 billion made in 2012. The EU is currently trying to pass a law that would fine companies up to two percent of their annual profits for data violations. This way businesses will feel the pain equally when they’re fined instead of decimating the little guy while tech giants barely feel a scratch.
Google will probably want to keep its check book out, because there are at least five other countries lining up to fine it for this data breach: France, Spain, Italy, the U.K. and the Netherlands. Even if those countries fine Google the same amount as Germany, it would barely register as a combined 0.01 total loss to the company this year.
What is the purpose of repeatedly levying fines on Internet companies? Yes, Google would rather keep the money instead of paying fines, but it doesn’t really hurt them that much. What message is the EU trying to send? Be careful with your software? Don’t accidentally steal data? It really does seem like the government is fining Google because it sees no other course of action.