In this issue, we’ll take a look at a recent $57 million decision against Google over data privacy. The money is small potatoes to the tech giant — Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported a quarterly profit of $8.95 billion on Monday — but the judgment hints at something more substantial all the same: The Wild West era of the internet is drawing to a close.
The Big Story
Regulators Are Figuring Out How to Make Google and Facebook Sweat
Last month, Google was hit with a $57 million fine by French officials for violating Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. At issue was how Google uses an individual’s personal data to serve targeted advertising.
The fine is part of a larger movement toward greater regulation of technology companies. As journalist Matthew Zeitlin explains, “No one sees this penalty as a one-off.”
Decisions like this one, combined with action like the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, could ultimately reshape how some of the most important consumer tech companies do business moving forward.
Quote to Remember
“We’ve got other headwinds in terms of privacy, where the privacy landscape, I think, does create some risk to 2019 revenue growth.”
— David Wehner, Facebook’s chief financial officer, in a recent earnings call
It’s a reminder that, though the outlook is far from certain, the companies responsible for our data are starting to take potential regulation seriously.
Still, there’s reason to be skeptical any of this will amount to much, at least in the United States. Public backlash hasn’t done much to change platforms like Google and Facebook — nor has it made these companies any less profitable.
In a new piece, Facebook Doesn’t Care About You, Medium columnist Trevor Timm argues that scandals have consistently failed to change user behavior. That behavior, of course, is what drives profitability on these platforms, because their product is essentially the data you create whenever you interact with something on your News Feed or record your location on Google Maps.
“Public pressure has done little to curb abuses, the FTC — which ostensibly has the power to regulate privacy violations — seems terrified to weigh in, and there’s been almost zero movement on any antitrust inquiries in the United States,” Timm writes.
Relatively few Americans — one in four — say they would pay a monthly fee to use Facebook and Google if it meant reducing the amount of private data the companies collect. That’s according to a recent surveyfrom the Center for Data Innovation, which also found that the vast majority of respondents (67.8 percent) “strongly agree” that they’d like Facebook and Google to collect less data on them.
In other words, there’s some appetite for change from the American public — but not a clear path forward
More Food for Thought
The $57 million privacy decision isn’t the only action European regulators have taken against Google this year. Also last month, a court ruled in favor of a surgeon who took legal action against the company over the “right to be forgotten.”
As EJ Dickson writes, that surgeon had previously been suspended for “negligence.” Eventually, the suspension was lifted, and the surgeon was able to go back to work.
But a third-party “blacklist” website kept a record of the disciplinary action, which surfaced in Google Search results for the surgeon’s name. She argued that the information was no longer relevant.
A judge agreed — arguing, per the Guardian, that “the pejorative name of the blacklist site suggested she was unfit to treat people, and that was not supported by the disciplinary panel’s findings.” That information will now be removed from Google Search results in Amsterdam, at least, in a decision that has alarmed some advocates.
“The aim here is to recreate obscurity,” Danny O’Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Medium.
Whatever the case, it’s yet another piece of evidence that the heavy weight of regulation is beginning to fall on the companies that have defined how we access information in the 21st century.