A little jail time says it's serious

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Relatively meaningless fines won't rein in digital excess.

MOST PEOPLE, HEARING a company had been fined $170 million, likely would think, "Whew! That's a lot of money."

Well, not necessarily.

Last week Google - which owns YouTube - agreed to fork out $170 million to settle a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission and the attorney general of New York. YouTube was found to have violated the Children's Online Privacy Act, by knowingly and illegally harvesting personal data from kids and using the information to sell and profit from ads targeting children. YouTube's profits came from data that should not have been gathered.

CONSIDER THIS: YouTube's parent company, Google, earned profits of $9.4 billion in the first quarter of 2018. According to mid-2018 figures, Google's market valuation is somewhere north of $750 billion.

Question: Is a mere $170 million just part of the cost of doing business?

It's often noted the digital world is the modern version of the Wild West. In the relative blink of an eye, the world has gone from a fairly private space to one in which every person's digital footprint is swept up and harvested for profit by companies whose financial resources dwarf anything ever seen before. Personal data may be snatched without the user's knowledge or, often, grabbed with "permission" by asking people to agree to dense terms of use no one reads or understands.

Some folks may not care how much of their data is swept. Others may object but feel their options are few if they want or need to connect to the digital world. The big digital companies clearly are running way out in front of regulators, who are at best playing catch up with technology.

EUROPE IS WELL AHEAD of America in supporting individual privacy rights. More limits have been set in Europe, and more accountability is demanded from companies.

No one should be surprised the United States seems slow to react, because the nature of modern American government is for politicians to led around on leashes by big-money donors and high-end lobbyists who make sure the field is tilted in the companies' favor.

The irony is obvious. If some poor guy sticks up a convenience store he'll serve years in the big house. If data-sweepers grab your personal information and turn it into millions - make that billions - the company will pay a relative pittance. Nobody goes to jail.

Fines, and jail, are meant to send a message that corrects misbehavior. Corrective action must bite a lot harder with the digital titans.

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