Google fires back at FCC on Wi-Fi investigation
SAN FRANCISCO—After being spanked by the Federal Communications Commission, Google is scolding the agency for its handling of a recently concluded investigation into the company's collection of emails, passwords and other personal information transmitted over wireless networks.
The rebuke came in a Thursday letter that disputed the FCC's reasons for fining Google Inc. $25,000 earlier this month.
Despite its misgivings, the company isn't trying to overturn the fine. The 14-page letter instead tried to debunk the idea that Google did anything wrong -- a high priority for a company whose motto is "Don't Be Evil."
The FCC contends Google "deliberately impeded and delayed" a privacy probe focused on the company's collection of sensitive data sent through unsecured Wi-Fi systems while photographing for the Street View feature on its online mapping service.
In its letter, Google argues that the 17-month inquiry would have gone much more quickly if the FCC hadn't dawdled so much. In some instances, Google says the FCC took seven to 12 weeks to respond to information that the company had submitted to the agency.
The FCC's delays were so frequent and lengthy, according to Google ,that the agency's legal window for completing the investigation would have closed if the company hadn't agreed to a seven-month extension.
"That is hardly the act of a party stonewalling an investigation," Google lawyer E. Ashton Johnston wrote in the letter to P. Michele Ellison, the chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau. "Rather, it is a demonstration of Google's interest in cooperating and allowing the FCC time to conduct a thorough investigation."
FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun said the agency stands behind the work of its staff.
"In promising to pay the bureau's penalty, the company has rightly admitted wrongdoing," Sun said of Google.
As Google wrangled with the FCC, another regulator took a significant step in a broader investigation into allegations that the company has been abusing its dominance of Internet search to stifle competition and drive up online advertising prices.
The Federal Trade Commission signaled that its year-old probe is deepening by hiring an outside lawyer, former U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, to look into Google's business practices. A veteran trial lawyer, Wilkinson is best known for helping the federal government convict Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997. The FTC stressed that Wilkinson's hiring should not be interpreted as a sign that it intends to crack down on Google.
In its notice about the Street View case, the FCC said it still had significant questions about Google's data collection on Wi-Fi systems because it couldn't get all the answers it wanted from the company.
Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., also disputed the notion that it didn't fully cooperate with the FCC.
In its letter, Google reminded the FCC that it handed over more than 800 pages of information after reviewing more than 500,000 documents to satisfy various requests made during the inquiry.
Google also revealed for the first time that it had cooperated with a U.S. Justice Department inquiry into Street View's collection of Wi-Fi data. The Justice Department took no action against Google, the letter said. The Federal Trade Commission also investigated the Street View data-gathering and didn't penalize Google.
By accepting the FCC's fine, Google also closed that agency's investigation.
Google has consistently maintained that its collection of personal information on Wi-Fi networks wasn't illegal, although it wasn't something the company intended to do when it sent out camera-bearing cars to cruise neighborhoods. The company attributed the information-gathering to a program that an overzealous engineer installed to help plot the location of the pictures.
The FCC says it subpoenaed an unidentified Google engineer as part of its investigation, but the employee invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against incriminating himself.