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Wednesday, 16 May 2018 12:01

Google must be hit with billion-dollar fine for snooping on Aussies

Google is claimed to be spying on Australians and using their own mobile data to do so. Google is claimed to be spying on Australians and using their own mobile data to do so. Pixabay

The best way for Australia to show that it takes the privacy of its citizens seriously would be for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to levy a hefty fine on Google for having the guts to not only spy on all Android users, but to also use their own data to do so. Talk of chutzpah.

And by hefty, I mean a sum in the billions. Yes, that's a 'b'. A fine of $1 billion would show a company that has an absolute disregard for the privacy of anyone else that it cannot run amok and get away with murder time and again.

But then, knowing that ACCC chief Rod Sims has a weakness for big business and also knowing what a toothless tiger the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is, one could as well expect the sun to set in the morning.

What we need is someone with the fortitude of EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, the woman who has all the world's multinationals running scared.

She reminds me of the late Golda Meir, who was once described as having more ba**s than her entire cabinet – which, if you recall, included the dashing Moshe Dayan.

Vestager is a tough, seasoned bureaucrat whose last pronouncement on Google was that the EU was contemplating breaking up the company. The only like example I can think of is Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, the man responsible for taking down serial cheat Lance Armstrong.

Google was fined €2.42 billion (US$2.7 billion) by the European Union in June last year for allegedly abusing its search engine dominance to give illegal advantage to its own comparison shopping service. The company has appealed the decision.

Coming back to Australia, a company like Oracle raised the spying claims, sending a team all the way Down Under to make a presentation to Sims in connection with the digital platforms inquiry that he is conducting.

It is extremely doubtful that Oracle would indulge in this kind of exercise if it were not on solid ground. Google's dismissal of the presentation as "sleight of hand" can only be described as disingenuous.

But does Sims or whoever is heading the OAIC have the cojones to act and levy a fine that would be noticed? Would the government sit by if Sims ladled out a $5 billion fine? Or would people like the smiling assassin, Mitch Fifield, the communications minister, try to smooth over things and make nice with the search behemoth?

It's interesting to note that the OAIC was so seized of this matter that it issued a whole paragraph of text in response. You can see it right here. One can also gauge the importance that this government accords to the OAIC by the fact that it is yet to appoint someone to head the organisation even though Timothy Pilgrom left on 24 March.

Google has been caught violating people's privacy on numerous occasions over the years and every time it is caught, it pledges never to do it again. But the company's business model is built around snooping on people and collecting data in order to target advertising; how can it give up collecting what is vital to its profits?

There are some who say that if we fine multinationals, they will leave Australia. These same folk then raise the bogey of jobs being lost. To them I say, rubbish.

No company is going to leave a country when it is making as much money as Google is. The company's lawyers and accountants have hatched up neat schemes to avoid tax — as have other multinationals like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft — and they will not leave these shores unless they start losing money.

Even if they did, would it be such a great loss? Google left China and did the Chinese suffer? Have a look at these statistics and tell me if China, now the world's single biggest digital market, has suffered.

It has its own equivalents of every technology that multinationals claim to offer and then some. Australia could have developed its own technology industry if only the government had offered it the right support. But, hey, expecting that is like expecting to get blood out of a stone.

So come on Sims and person-who-heads-the-OAIC: it's time to stand up and show some backbone. Hit the bastards where it hurts – only money, and oodles of it, will make those at the Googleplex sit up and take notice. You can always call Vestager for advice – and given the way she has been operating over the last few years, I doubt she will charge for it.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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