By the end of April, it was begining to look like Google was turning a corner on what had started out as a potentially difficult year. In Europe, Google was in a high-profile dispute with LVMH, the owner of famous brands such as Moët, Hennessy, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Christian Dior. If the result went the wrong way for Google it would threaten their AdWords cash cow across the entire European Community. At the same time, Google was facing AdWords proceedings in both the Northern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia. Add to that the privacy complaints and rumors of government investigations that greeted the launch of its “Buzz” social networking project, and comments from Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, that if you don’t want Google to publicize and profit from something, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it“, and you can see why things looked a bit ominous for Google.
But then it all started going right. First of all, Rescuecom surprised everyone in early March by dropping its (New York) trademark infringement action, declaring victory but not gaining any of the relief it had been seeking from the lawsuit.
Then the AdWords program survived the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (video here, additional comments here). Their judgment was hardly a ringing endorsement of the service, and there are various doors left wide-open to challenge it on other grounds, but at the very least it lives to fight another day.
Following this, Google’s motion for summary judgment in the (Virginia) Rosetta Stone action was granted (although Rosetta may yet decide to appeal once they see the Judge’s reasons for his decision).
And, to top it all off, the German Federal Supreme Court held that a photographer must be deemed to have impliedly consented to Google copying images from her website because she had not prevented it from doing so. (I wonder how many other Courts in Europe would reach the same result or adopt that reasoning: it appears to put a barrier between the artist and the automatic copyright protection to which she is supposed to be entitled, and to turn the idea of “exclusive rights” on its head.)
But then, possibly feeling a bit too relaxed after such a roll of good results, and in a scene reminiscent of President Obama’s comments on the Cambridge police after dealing with the last of a tough evening’s questions on healthcare, Google responded to the news that it had been spying on ordinary people’s wifi networks with its Street View cars for three years, that it was storing the data it had collected (including emails), and that it was refusing to delete it until ordered to do so, with two particularly patronizing comments: “No harm, no foul“, said Eric Schmidt (a principle which J Briggs says, in the comments, is the Peeping Tom’s charter); and “You can’t prove any harm“, said Larry Page. This article indicates that the UK’s Information Commissioner believes the Data Protection Act had been breached, and that the FTC is launching an inquiry, but here The Times (London) makes out that Google has been forced into the admission after not being completely honest with regulators:
“Google made the admission after German authorities began to examine why Google was using the cars to collect wi-fi data at all. A month ago Google said it was collecting only the name and location of local wi-fi networks — information, it argued, that was publicly available and was useful to help it improve its location services. Its data collection was much more invasive.
Internet activity such as e-mails, photos and which websites a user was looking at could have been collected by the cars.”
As does the New York Times:
“European privacy regulators and advocates reacted angrily Saturday to the disclosure by Google, the world’s largest search engine, that it had systematically collected private data since 2006 while compiling its Street View photo archive. After being pressed by European officials about the kind of data the company compiled in creating the archive — and what it did with that information — Google acknowledged on Friday that it had collected snippets of private data around the world.
Mr. Caspar [data protection supervisor for Hamburg, in Germany] said he had inspected one of Google’s Street View recording vehicles at the company’s invitation this month and had noticed that the recording device’s hard drive had been removed. When he asked to view the drive, he said he was told he couldn’t read the information anyway because it was encoded. He said he pressed Google to disclose what type of information was being collected, which prompted the company to examine the storage unit.
Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, Peter Schaar … questioned whether Google’s collection of the data was a simple oversight, as the company has maintained.”
Bad news all round, particularly for Google if it turns out that no damage has been done nor any data unlawfully used. It’s a stark reminder, though, of the importance of perception when discussing your own shortcomings: no-one (except the New York Times) appears to be paying any attention to the mea culpa offered by Google’s Kay Obermeck: “This was obviously a mistake, and we are profoundly sorry.”
No doubt you are.