Google Faces FTC and FCC Probe

Google is battling multiple obstacles right now.  First there’s the ongoing Oracle lawsuit, then the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust probe, and the Federal Communications Commussion’s street view probe.  Let’s look at the development on the government’s probe against Google.

FCC vs Google

In May 2007, Google deployed custom-equipped autos for their Street View project to collect images, but it also collected wireless data such as e-mail, text messages, passwords, Internet-usage history and “other highly sensitive personal information,” which aren’t needed for the project.

The FCC investigated the matter, which led to a delay in the project.  The investigation ended when Google promised that they would improve company safeguards.  The US Justice Department also stated last year that they “would not pursue a case for violation of the Wiretap Act.”

But on April 13 of this year, the FCC threatened to fine Google $25,000 for delaying their probe on the Street View project, which the search giant agreed to pay just so the inquiry would end.  Unfortunately, agreeing to pay the penalty made Google look guilty.

“In promising to pay the bureau’s penalty, the company has rightly admitted wrongdoing,” Tammy Sun, an FCC spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Going forward, important concerns about the privacy of unencrypted Wi-Fi communications remain.”

Others also want the investigation to be re-opened, contesting the Justice Department’s decision not to pursue a case for the violation of the Wiretap Act.

“Google downloaded the private communications of millions of users with Wi-Fi routers in theUnited States,”  Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center who requested the FCC probe, said. “That is not permissible under the federal wiretap act. It can’t be.”

As of today, the Google Street View investigation is closed.

FTC vs Google

The FTC is questioning Google’s search technology – they believe that Google is manipulating the search results in order to put Google’s product or services on top of the search, making them anti-competitive.

There’s no formal case against Google yet, but the hiring of Beth A. Wilkinson, a former Justice Department prosecutor, makes it appear as if the FTC is gearing up for a court battle.

“It’s a watershed moment when you hire someone like this,” said David Wales, a former Federal Trade Commission official now in private practice with Jones Day. “This shows Google that if it doesn’t give you the remedy you want, you’re going to litigate.”

Wilkinson is known for the cases against Colombian narcoterrorist Dandeny Muñoz Mosquera, McVeigh and Terry Nichols, all of which she won.  She was awarded with the Attorney General’s Exceptional Service Award, the Justice Department’s highest honors, for the Mosquera case.  Having her on the FTC’s team means this is serious business, and Google better watch out.

“It increases the likelihood that there will be a case,” said Douglas Broder, a law partner at K&L Gates in New York and the author of several textbooks and articles on antitrust law.

The FTC stated that they hired Wilkinson because in a case as serious as this, you want a thorough investigation which could only be made by a “world-class litigator” like Wilkinson.

“Technology is transforming our society,” Ms. Wilkinson said in an interview. “It affects people at every level. As a mother, I see it with my kids. As a professional, I see it affecting our work. And in society, it impacts privacy, competition, our interactions with other people — just about everything.”

“Working on the investigation will be a great challenge. I don’t underestimate Google,” Wilkinson added.