Does the government really care about privacy?

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) building AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS
If you wondered how strict the Federal Trade Commission is with tackling corporations over assaults on customer privacy, you’ll be relieved to know that the FTC is ending its investigation with Facebook.

The FTC has been going after Zuckerberg and company over a scandal in which Facebook exposed personal data of its users across the Web after updating their privacy settings in 2009 and not clueing-in their customers.

If you actually are interested in how its wrapping up, however, you might just be pissed.

Once again, the FTC is ending an epic battle of privacy issues of everyday Americans be responding with a slap on the wrist against one of the biggest corporations in the country. Although concerns amounted around the world after Facebook openly published personal data online two years ago without letting their users know they would do so, the FTC is about to ask Facebook, “Hey guys, don’t let it happen again, alright?”

Details on the pop-and-fizzle settlement have been reported to the Wall Street Journal by people close to the talks. It won’t be the first time a case of such monumental concern ended with a bust, though.

The FTC exists in part to protect private citizens and their data from the greedy hands of money-hungry corporations. As the Internet became more commonplace, the first time the FTC intervened in a major case was back in 1999 after the website GeoCities was revealed to have misrepresented the purposes for which it was collecting personal data from both children and adults. After the FTC involved itself in the collection of information, which included address, gender, income and occupation, the end result was that GeoCities had to update their advisory to make it clearer as to the purpose of their data collection.

In the next decade, Google, Microsoft and Twitter were also involved in similar cases yet the FTC, in most cases, simply asked them politely to stop collecting and selling the personal statistics of millions of clients.

After it was made public that Google had been lifting personal info by way of a clandestine collection carried out by its Street View vehicles last year, the FTC only went as far as to write a letter to the search engine — a brief one at that — in which the agency voice their “concerns” over Google’s policies. In the end, the FTC abandoned any action against Google because they had “announced improvements to its internal processes” and therefore the FTC ended their probe almost immediately.

Coincidentally, Google had supplied three of the five commissioners of the FTC with swanky rooms at its Aspen Summit in Colorado in the years prior. As Gawker reported in 2008, all three of the FTC people that had their vacations comped by Google had approved the search engine’s controversial $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick, even after the agency launched a near-year-long investigation over privacy concerns. A merger between DoubleClick and Google would have allowed parties to share thousands of personal information of users from either site.

"It leaves too much personal information about all of us in one company's hands,” Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester told CNET at the time. In the end of that case, the investigation came to a halt after Google simply told the FTC that they’d play nice.

After allegations were brought against Facebook for broadcasting the personal data of users without their consent, Zuckerberg responded over the course of a few months by continuously updating privacy options on the website. At the time, reports the Journal, the controversial decision was just a "simpler model for privacy control."

"It's getting more and more important to be increasingly clear and give people those controls," Zuckerberg told the Journal of the site's privacy settings. "I don't think we're at the end. I think we're going to need to keep on making it easier and easier, but that's our mission."

For the hundreds of millions of users who suffered their own deepest data being exposed to the Internet, however, they didn’t think there was anything simple about it. While Facebook has since updated its policies, the legal ramifications against them will be, in typical FTC fashion, non-existent, sources report to the Journal.

"The FTC has made clear that it is stepping up enforcement" of privacy issues, Lisa Sotto, partner and head of the Global Privacy and Information Management Practice at law firm Hunton & Williams, writesthe WSJ. "Companies would be wise to pay attention to this trend and implement privacy programs that include comprehensive assessments of their privacy practices."

Over the last decade, however, the trend has shown that corporations willing to offer hand-outs to the FTC have been rewarded by being spared fines and prison time in lieu of just saying “sorry.” Sadly, the latest ruling is just another brick in the wall to keep corporations’ evil practices out of the eyes of the clients.