FCC Fines Google in Street View Case for Lack of Cooperation in Inquiry, But No Enforcement Action Sought
One remembers the stir that Google’s Street View project created during 2010 in the United States, Canada, and the European Union, when it was discovered that the California company had collected WiFi network data, when its Street View cars roamed the streets of the world, taking pictures of the of the environment in order to create a comprehensive map. It turned out that this data included “payload” data, that is, the content of emails, text messages, or even passwords.
Google had first denied payload data collection, then admitted it, but stated that such data was fragmented, and then finally acknowledged in October 2010 that sometimes entire emails had been captured. Following that statement, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started an inquiry to determine whether such conduct violated section 705(a) of the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the interception of interstate radio communications, except if authorized by the Wiretap Act.
Google had argued that, under the Wiretap Act, which prohibits the intentional interception of electronic communications, it is not unlawful to intercept electronic communications made though a system readily accessible to the general public, and that such a definition encompassed unencrypted WiFi communications networks.
On April 13, 2012, the FCC filed a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) finding that Google “apparently willfully and repeatedly violated [the FCC] orders to produce… information and documents” that the FCC had requested. Such conduct would carry a $25,000 penalty. However, the FCC decided not to take any enforcement action under Section 705(a), as “[t]here is not clear precedent for applying [it] to… Wi-Fi communications.”