FCC cowed by Google

By James P. Tuthill, San Francisco Chronicle

There is a consensus that some of the most significant Internet issues of our day are the protection of individual privacy and the collection of our personal data by third parties. When it is done with our knowledge, i.e., when we click on a website and we know or should know that some company is probably tracking us, it is bad enough because we don't know how that information will be used. When it's done without our knowledge, it's nefarious. And when that's done intentionally, it should be a crime.

On April 13, the Federal Communications Commission had the opportunity to step up to protect consumers' privacy and tell everyone who tracks user data what was forbidden. But it was stared down by Google, and the FCC blinked.

Instead of forging positions to protect consumers' privacy in an ever-changing technological environment, it slapped Google with a meaningless fine of $25,000.

Just $25,000? You've got to be kidding.

What did Google do? While taking pictures for its Google Street View service, it collected data from users' unencrypted Wi-Fi signals. As its vehicle drove up your street and took pictures of your home or your business, its radio receiver picked up your Wi-Fi broadcast signal. And in your signal - an envelope - was your content: an e-mail, a Web search, a file download. Google was opening and reading your mail without either your knowledge or your permission.

But the FCC says it can't, or it won't, do anything. The FCC has been cowed by Google and probably fears the wrath of a Republican House, which hasn't forgiven the FCC for adopting Internet nondiscrimination rules.

According to news reports, Google contends that its gathering of Wi-Fi signals was unintentional and legal. Let's look at those assertions.

Wi-Fi involves both the transmission and reception of radio signals. You are at home with your iPad and you initiate a Web search. The Wi-Fi card in your iPad sends the request by radio transmission to your Wi-Fi router, which gathers the answer from the Internet via a wired connection such as DSL and then returns that information to your iPad by sending it a radio message. In order to gather the signal from your Wi-Fi router, Google had to intentionally build a receiver into its equipment.

Just like an AM or FM radio, any receiver of Wi-Fi signals has to tune into the right frequency. Google knew what that signal was because the FCC has specified the frequency that Wi-Fi routers can use. We can infer from the collection of radio transmissions by Google that its actions were intentional because it had to make decisions to collect the Wi-Fi signals.

The legal answer might be a harder call, but federal law generally prohibits someone from intercepting private radio signals. Google is taking the broadest view of existing law and claiming that your Wi-Fi signals weren't private. This is absurd.

It's reasonable to conclude that most people would regard their Wi-Fi communications, even if not encrypted, as private, just as we regard a conversation in our homes and offices as private.

Simply because someone is using a device to eavesdrop on us doesn't make our discussion any less private. Google was intentionally eavesdropping on conversations that the parties regarded as private even if they were unencrypted. It should be the function of federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the FCC to promote the public interest and actively protect consumers. But here the FCC has regrettably taken the easy way out.

We may never know the real reasons why it has given Google a pass for its egregious invasions of privacy. But there's a good possibility that in an election year it simply doesn't want to be attacked from the right and by industry lobbyists as antibusiness and anti-Internet. We consumers are left to fend for ourselves. 5/1/2012