It hardly even registers anymore.
Google and YouTube agreed to pay $170 Million for violating child privacy rights. There was a time when that might have meant something. But news of tech companies breaking laws and paying massive fines really have no meaning. Or at least, no consequences.
A couple of months ago Facebook agreed to pay the FTC a record $5 Billion in fines for privacy violations. For its part, Facebook admitted no wrongdoing.
When numbers are that large, they cease to have any meaning for most people. $170 Million for stealing children’s data? Sounds about right. $5 Billion for Facebook? Sounds fair.
Your kids still using YouTube? Yep. Your friends still on Facebook? Of course.
There was a time when doing something wrong could wreck a company. It could create scandal. Outrage. Shame. People would stop using a company’s services and that company would take a loss, or even go out of business. But today’s biggest companies are so ingrained in our lives that we wouldn’t consider stopping patronage. And besides, it’s not like we can use their competition. If you couldn’t use Facebook, Google, YouTube or Amazon, where would you go? They have managed to provide such a compelling product and user experience that there is no competition.
But back to the fines.
Analysts believe the $170 Million fine levied by the FTC and NY State amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist for Google and YouTube. It was a major win for the NY State Attorney General, whose state will pocket $34 Million, and for the FTC who will pocket the balance. But not for justice.
Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time? The fact is, it was a crime. Clearly. YouTube collected illegal data from children on its children’s channels and then openly pitched it to companies, who gladly ponied up big money to advertise. According to the FTC in its release, “YouTube marketed itself as a top destination for kids in presentations to the makers of popular children’s products and brands. For example, Google and YouTube told Mattel, maker of Barbie and Monster High toys, that “YouTube is today’s leader in reaching children age 6-11 against top TV channels” and told Hasbro, which makes My Little Pony and Play-Doh, that YouTube is the “#1 website regularly visited by kids.”
Google and YouTube openly ignored the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), collecting personal data from their youngest users without parental consent, in the form of Cookies, to deliver data-driven personal ads to the kids.
So what, you say. Isn’t it a victimless crime? Not exactly. There is a reason we don’t turn over our children’s information to complete strangers. It’s dangerous. It’s harmful. And the information never goes away. It will follow your children their entire lives. And here’s where the numbers come in. Google and YouTube didn’t just commit a criminal act one time. Or ten times. Or a hundred. The individuals in that company willingly, knowingly, committed criminal acts in the hundreds of millions of times, victimizing a sizable percentage of the world’s youth population. It’s crime on a scale unprecedented in history.
Yet no one went to jail. No one paid fines out of their own pockets.
Companies don’t commit crimes, individuals in companies commit crimes. If you worked for a small company and committed fraud against millions of people, bilking them out of $Billions, you would do major time in federal or state prison. The scale of Google’s crime made Bernie Madoff look like Mother Teresa. $170 Million probably comes to less than a dollar a victim.
It’s the numbers. They make everything possible. And the PR strategy? That’s right out of Joseph Goebbels’ playbook. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Here's YouTube’s big lie in response to the fine, offered by their CEO Susan Wojcicki. “Nothing is more important than protecting kids and their privacy.” Really? You just got popped shredding the privacy of millions of children. I doubt I could even say that lie with a straight face.
So, what’s the answer? First, make the charges criminal, not civil. Subject the individuals in these companies to jail time if they break the law, just like you and me. If companies continue to break the law, padlock the doors.
If privacy laws aren’t going to be enforced, take them off the books. And for the CEOs that stand up in public and tell the big lies, let’s bring back the stockade in the town square.
I’ll bring the rotten cabbage to throw.
About the Author
Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor, and serves as editor in chief at the Learning Counsel.