For better or worse, Google is now at the epicenter of tech and the law

Three stories over the past few days cement Google's place as the new Microsoft

There have been three major stories surrounding Google over the past couple of days and all of them show how intertwined Google has become with tech-related laws in the United States and elsewhere.  Let's start with the biggie, which is that the FCC has fined Google $25,000 for allegedly impeding its investigation of whether Google's Street View project violated privacy laws by illegally collecting Wi-Fi data with its roving Street View cars.  The Washington Post has a pretty good summary and shows that the FCC isn't mincing any words here:

The Federal Communications Commission has cleared Google of charges that it illegally collected WiFi data using its Street View cars, but fined the company $25,000 for obstructing the bureau’s investigation.

According to the FCC filing, the company has not been helping U.S. regulators look into the matter. “For many months, Google deliberately impeded and delayed the Bureau’s investigation by failing to respond to requests for material information and to provide certifications and verifications of its responses,” the filing said.

 

The agency subpoenaed a Google engineer, identified only as Engineer Doe, who then invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

 

Google has said previously that the data collection was accidental, and the company has been under scrutiny for the practice in Canada, France and the Netherlands. The company has said that it will submit a response to the filing, and that it takes issue with some of what was said in the document.

I'm no attorney but doesn't "deliberately impeding and delaying" an investigation into alleged criminal behavior warrant a bit more than a $25,000 wrist slap?  At any rate, it's clear that the government doesn't think it has anything close to a real case against Google in this matter and some consumer privacy watchdogs such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center are predictably crying foul at the FCC's perceived timidity in not pursuing legal action.

Our second item involves Google co-founder Sergey Brin talking to the Guardian about what he sees as the biggest threats to the open Internet in the future.  The most provocative comments he makes surround Facebook:

In an interview with the Guardian, Brin warned there were "very powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all sides and around the world". "I am more worried than I have been in the past," he said. "It's scary."

The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry's attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of "restrictive" walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms. [...]

  

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. "You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive," he said. "The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation."

He criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. "Facebook has been sucking down Gmail contacts for many years," he said.

  

Google, of course, has been trying in vain to create its own version of Facebook with Google+, as the company wants to be able to sell ads that are as sharply-targeted toward individual users as they can possibly get.  Facebook has tons and tons of data on individuals' likes and tastes while Google's view of their users is somewhat less granular.  This is part of the reason why Google is now sharing data across its different services, but the company would still love to tap into the same level of data that Facebook now enjoys.

At any rate I'm not sure what to make of Brin's criticism of Facebook.  I honestly don't at all see how a Facebook would have possibly prevented a company such as Google from getting off the ground and I've seen no evidence that Facebook's dominance in the social networking space has in any way inhibited innovation on the web.  At the same time, any companies such as Google and Facebook that have enormous amounts of consumer data ought to be viewed with a certain degree of suspicion since it's more likely than not that they'll at some point engage in sketchy behavior (see the Street View controversy above).

And finally, we have the high-profile patent dispute between Google and Oracle heads to trial this week.  Let's go to CNET for the lowdown:

Yes, it's clear that Oracle is suing Google over patent violations involving Android and Java -- patents that used to be owned by Sun Microsystems but now belong to Oracle. Google has reasserted time and again that Sun was a big supporter of Android, and that the programming language was free to use.

 

To clarify matters before going into trial, Judge William H. Alsup issued an order on April 6asking each side to "take a firm yes or no position on whether computer programming languages are copyrightable."

But Oracle has also repeatedly failed to pinpoint and narrow down which patents being violated. Furthermore, it hasn't helped that settlement talks have continuously stalled proceedings. Even dragging in Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Google CEO Larry Page didn't do any good.

 

This is the point where I admit that I officially have Android Patent Suit Fatigue and that I honestly can't keep up with all the suits and counter-suits being waged against Google for alleged IP infractions.  But this story is just another piece of evidence that reinforces the point I was making at the beginning of this post: For better or worse, Google has become the new Microsoft in that it is so large and is involved in so many different services and technologies that it will be at the center of debates on tech legal matters for the foreseeable future.  Whether Google wants to have such a target on its back is another question entirely, but it seems pretty clear that they've taken on the bulls-eye that used to be reserved for Microsoft.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.