CALIFORNIA – After months of negotiation , Johannes Caspar, a German data protection official, forced Google to show him exactly what its Street View cars had been collecting from potentially millions of his fellow citizens. Snippets of e-mails , photographs , passwords, chat messages, postings on Web sites and social networks – all sorts of private internet communications – were casually scooped up as the specially equipped cars photographed the world’s streets.
“It was one of the biggest violations of data protection laws that we had ever seen,” Caspar recently recalled about that long-sought viewing in late 2010. “We were very angry.”
Google might be one of the coolest and smartest companies of this or any era, but it also upsets a lot of people – competitors who argue it wields its tremendous weight unfairly, officials like Caspar who says it ignores local laws, privacy advocates who think it takes too much from its users . Just this week, European antitrust regulators gave the company an ultimatum to change its search business or face legal consequences. American regulators may not be far behind.
The high-stakes antitrust assault, which will play out this summer behind closed doors in Brussels, might be the beginning of a tough time for Google. A similar US case in the 1990s heralded the comeuppance of Microsoft, the most fearsome tech company of its day.
But never count Google out. It is superb at getting out of trouble. Just ask Caspar or any of his counterparts around the world who tried to hold Google accountable for what one of them, the Australian communication minister Stephen Conroy, called “probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy .” The secret Street View data collection led to inquiries in at least a dozen countries , including four in the US alone. But Google has yet to give a complete explanation of why the data was collected and who at the company knew about it. No regulator in the US has ever seen the information that Google’s cars gathered from Americans
How Google escaped a full accounting for Street View shows not only how technology firms outstripped regulators , but also their complicated relationship with customers.