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Lawsuit May Compel Google to Accept ‘Real Responsibility’ for Wi-Spy Violations

For the past few years Google has been dealing with fines and government admonishments after collecting data from open Wi-Fi networks of consumers without their knowledge. The so-called Wi-Spy scandal seem to be over when 38 states attorneys general and Google settled a case in March with the search giant agreeing to pay $7 million, acknowledging the privacy violation, and pledging to inform consumers how to make their networks more secure.

However, a panel of three federal judges ruled earlier this week that a lawsuit seeking to collect damages from Google for its Wi-Spy activities can continue. Those judges also took issue with Google’s legal arguments.

Google had argued the data it collected was “readily accessible to the general public,” and thus Google was not violating federal wiretapping laws. But, as The New York Times described it, the California judges were not convinced, to say the very least:

“The unanimous, 35-page decision by a three-judge panel found little merit in Google’s legal maneuverings, stating at one critical point that the company was basically inventing meanings in an effort to declare its actions legal.

“The court wrote that Google’s proposed definition of ‘radio communication’ was ‘in tension with how Congress — and virtually everyone else — uses the phrase.’”

Google’s scattershot and confounding arguments in this case are nothing new. After the news of the practice broke, Google said it was not collecting personal data. Then Google said it had collected some data, but only in fragments. Then Google admitted it had data, such as whole emails.

In April 2012, the  Federal Communications Commission hit Google with a $25,000 fine after “Google deliberately impeded and delayed” its investigation into whether Google was violating federal communications law designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping.

Some observers believed the FCC and state attorneys general settlements, while significant have lacked teeth. Kashmir Hill, a Forbes reporter, wrote that the state attorneys general fine was “basically Monopoly money” for Google and she characterized the FCC fine as “laughable.”

Kathryn Barnett, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told the New York Times that the plaintiffs will now seek to get the class-action certified. If that designation is made, millions of people could join the suit.

“I don’t think Google was sorry until they were investigated. We would love for them to accept responsibility for what they did — real responsibility,” she said.

John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog added that Google has in the past been able to “buy its way out of privacy violations,” though this case now “has the potential for meaningful damages.”

Google has made dubious legal arguments, and deliberately delayed and impeded the FCC’s investigation. This just shows once again that Google cannot be trusted by governments or the public to fulfill its obligations to respect the laws and consumer rights.

Perhaps if the plaintiffs in this private lawsuit prevail, Google may finally be forced once again to to accept real responsibility for its actions in the Wi-Spy case.