A fine of 145,000 EUR (roughly $189,000) is trivial for Google. But that’s close to the maximum fine allowed by German law ($150,000 EUR).
The fine is being imposed on Google for violations of German privacy and data protection laws stemming from the so-called “WiSpy” episode in 2008 – 2009 in which Google collected private emails and other personal data via its Street View cars and their efforts to map Wi-Fi locations around the world. Google was fined 100,000 EUR by French authorities for the same violations in 2011.
These amounts are insignificant to Google, which just posted quarterly revenues of nearly $14 billion. (It’s more of a PR problem than anything.) For that reason Johannes Caspar, German data protection supervisor, is calling for significantly higher monetary penalties for future privacy violations.
Caspar told the New York Times, “As long as violations of data protection law are penalized with such insignificant sums, the ability of existing laws to protect personal privacy in the digital world, with its high potential for abuse, is barely possible.”
Google has said from the beginning that the incident and the collection of personal information was a mistake. However, information subsequently came out that suggested it was intentional, although perhaps unknown to top Google executives.
European authorities generally take a much harder line on data protection and privacy than US regulators and have had several disputes with Facebook, as well.
There is likely to continue to be an “opt-in/opt-out” divide around data collection between US regulators and their European counterparts. Some data-collection practices allowed in the US may be prohibited in Europe. For example, Facebook’s extensive use of third party data sources to inform its own ad targeting is something that probably would not be allowed, absent explicit consent, in Europe.
In early 2012, the US Federal Communications Commission concluded its own WiSpy investigation with no finding of liability against Google, but fined the company $25,000 for non-cooperation with its investigation. Google disputed that characterization.
Subsequently, Google settled a parallel WiSpy investigation with 30 US state Attorneys Generals for $7 million. However, even this amount isn’t significant for Google.