Here’s why (summary):
- In 2010, Google’s Street View teams – the mobile crews that are systematically filming every street and building in the world, including your home – were accused of deliberately capturing people’s names, telephone numbers, emails, text messages, passwords, search histories, and even online dating information as they drove from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in the US and more than 30 other countries between 2006 and 2010;
- In February 2010, Google stunned privacy advocates by rolling out Buzz, a social networking service that automatically enrolled Google’s 175 million Gmail users, instantly creating a “circle of friends” for each user based on who they emailed most often. The problem was that Google never asked its Gmail users whether they wanted to enroll – and what was that again about who you emailed most often? Buzz was shut down after 18 months;
- In 2011, Google reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission regarding revelations about how it handled user search information. Google tracks everything you search for, you see, as well as every website you visit, including those porn sites your friend visited when he borrowed your laptop. The company denied it was using this information improperly, but FTC officials were not persuaded. As a result, the company reluctantly agreed to undergo regular privacy audits for the next 20 years. As you may have noticed, however, those highly targeted ads Google sends you based on your email content and internet activities seem to be coming faster than ever;
- In 2011, after a successful sting operation by the state of Rhode Island on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, Google agreed to pay a whopping $500 million fine to the Federal Government for illegally marketing Canadian prescription medication to US citizens through its AdWords program – a ubiquitous advertising system that allows Google ads to appear on just about any website, just about anywhere – even smack in the middle of an article on Mitt Romney or the Mars landing. Google had been on notice since 2003 that its advertising may be in violation of US law, but it continued to solicit and support its position aggressively until at least 2009, supposedly generating upwards of $500 million in revenues.
- In early August 2012, the FTC levied a $22.5 million fine against Google for violating the privacy of people who used the Safari browser on Apple iPhones, iPads, and Macintosh computers. Google bypassed Safari’s privacy settings to track user activity and send users customised ads. Google’s actions not only violated its agreements with Apple, they also - yet again - violated the terms of Google’s settlement with the FTC. Google agreed to pay the fine but refused to admit that it had violated any laws. The company’s defence? It was “unaware” that the privacy violations were occurring;
- Google can not only track your activity when you’re not using its search engine, it can also restrict that activity through blacklisting, thus serving as a censor for internet content;
And now for the quiz.
- Would it be unlawful for Google to give preferential treatment to its own websites in its search results?
- Would it be unlawful for Google to alter its search algorithm in a way that helps or hurts businesses of a particular type – say, businesses accused of idealism, agnosticism, or the excessive use of plastic bags?
- Would it be unlawful for Google to alter its search algorithm in a way that changes the rankings of one particular political party, news service, or type of news story?
- Would it be unlawful for an individual Google employee to push his or her favorite business, rock band, or political candidate up or down in the search rankings?
- Would it be unlawful for Google to completely eliminate a business or individual from its search engine?
- Is it unlawful for Google to add websites to its worldwide blacklist without the permission of the owners of those websites, with or without cause?
- Is it unlawful for Google to collect and organize vast volumes of information about you, your family, and your business and then to use that information to try to alter your behavior?
The answer to each of these questions, as you will likely have guessed by now, is: nope. The one question to which the answer is a resounding yes is this: is Google a threat to our civil liberties?
And now, increasingly, it’s personal. Google isn’t just collecting information in the abstract, as advertisers have always done; it’s collecting information about you, exactly as if it were listening in to all of your phone calls, peering though your windows to see which books and articles you read, watching you through hidden cameras to see which television shows you watch, following you from shop to shop to track your purchases, and then transcribing all of this information and indexing it for later use and resale.
That’s what Google is doing to you in the digital world you inhabit for so much of the day, and if a bot or a person at Google thinks that what you are doing in that world is unacceptable, they can make your digital self disappear.
Would we, as a society, tolerate a private company that routinely monitored our behaviour throughout our waking hours, collecting and cataloging information that it later used to influence our spending and that could, in principle, be used for even more nefarious purposes? No. But that’s exactly what we’re allowing Google to do. If you’re not afraid, you probably should be.
Nipping at Google’s heels. That’s what US federal agencies and some foreign governments have been doing. But the issues they’ve looked at are trivial. It’s time we all examined the larger ones.