Google, and its parent Alphabet, have always shown a remarkable ability to maintain consumer goodwill – their reputation remains strong and their market cap immense despite a litany of misdeeds that would likely have seriously bruised, if not floored, most other companies.
What kinds of misdeeds? Harvesting user data en masse and selling it to the highest bidder. Tracking users’ locations, even after users specifically told them not to. Opposing legislation that would limit the ability to use internet platforms for child sex trafficking. And failing in their responsibility to avoid fanning our national opioid crisis by allowing simple drug searches such as “fentanyl for sale.” And, it was recently reported that this past spring, “Google exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users of the Google+ social network and then opted not to disclose the issue … , in part because of fears that doing so would draw regulatory scrutiny and cause reputational damage.”
Those are some of the issues, to name a few.
Yet, as their Big Tech brethren Facebook grappled with scandal after scandal following a 2016 election rife with social media-enabled misinformation and meddling, Google has largely managed to fly under the radar. In recent months, however, Google’s seemingly impenetrable armor of altruism and goodwill has begun to show some cracks, with pressure coming from both the left and the right.
In July, Google subsidiary YouTube dragged its heels on removing the account of notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose invective-fueled videos have, among other things, helped spread claims that the child victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre were “crisis actors” planted to spread leftist propaganda. Finally, Google gave in to increasing public pressure and banned Jones from the platform, but only following similar moves by Apple, Facebook, and Spotify. The company’s reluctance to follow suit left many scratching their heads, and drew attention to the fact that Jones is just one of many bad actors whom YouTube has enabled, uplifted, and profited from.
YouTube’s hot water then began to bubble over in September, when lawmakers began questioningits compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The rules governing data collection from minors are stricter than they are for adults, and a September 17 letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai from Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) hinted that YouTube had been warned it was failing to comply with COPPA since as far back as April.
Compounding the criticism, Google had already become the subject of a recent New Mexico lawsuit alleging that certain third-party apps in its Play Store have tracked children online without parental consent. Both developments come in the wake of Google’s lengthy and still-unfolding saga of letting inappropriate content infiltrate its Kids app.
Even while this government scrutiny was heating up, Google was quietly moving forward on plans to design a censored version of its search engine in China, whose government is notorious for monitoring and manipulating the online lives of activists, dissidents, and even ethnic minorities. But the plan couldn’t stay quiet for long – news about the offering, codenamed “Dragonfly,” began to catch fire in the press, receiving widespread pushback from human rights activists, media outlets, and Google’s own employees – a number of whom have quit in protest of the project.
Then, in August, a ripple of Republican concern over biased internet traffic on Google as well as other platforms turned into a wave powered in part by inflammatory tweets from President Trump. This growing discontent on the right prompted Congress to schedule a September 5 Senate Intelligence Committee to question high-ranking Big Tech executives about the impact their companies were having on society. Both Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg showed up, but Google declined…and was represented by an empty seat at the hearing.
The snub was, as New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo put it, “a big mistake.” In a rare Washington show of unity, both Republicans and Democrats reacted poorly to Google’s absence. “Given its size and influence, I would have thought that leadership at Google would have wanted to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to actually take a leadership role in this important discussion,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) at the hearing. “Unfortunately, they didn’t choose to make that decision.” Subsequently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with several state attorneys general in September to discuss the growing concern that Big Tech companies like Google “may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”
Now in the crossfire of a series of current investigations, Google’s prioritization of profits over accountability finally seems to be catching up to it. For us here at CreativeFuture and the community of more than 5.5 million Americans who work in industries supported by copyright, this can’t happen soon enough.
For years, we have struggled to maintain our livelihoods in a digital ecosystem that Google has helped make untenable for people employed in the production of books, journalism, movies, music, television, and software. These industries contribute more than $1.2 trillion to the American economy, and yet outdated safe harbor laws such as Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have allowed Google to undermine them with search results leading to piracy sites, and negligent upload policies that have resulted in more than 900 million takedown notices being sent to them by creatives as recently as two years ago.
For too long, our leaders in Congress have been captive to Google’s massive army of lobbyists, surrogate groups, and think tanks, who work diligently to erode copyright at every opportunity and ensure the company gets to keep making billions of dollars from content that it does not own or make.
A change is coming, but what might it look like? We need to restore respect in our copyright system, which has helped to make America the world’s creative leader. Strong copyright protections allow creatives to make a living creating the content audiences love… and these same protections help to keep companies that facilitate piracy (like Google) in check.
We also need Google to step up its cooperation. As Sen. Warner put it, they should be happy to work with citizens and lawmakers alike to shape the future in positive ways. Battling piracy is just one part of that better future – a world where creative works are protected and don’t get stolen should go hand-in-hand with Google’s original “Don’t be Evil” mantra.
It’s been interesting to see how Google makes incremental improvement, in dribs in drabs, in its search function, its management of its cloud storage resources, and other business practices to be able to say it’s “doing something” about piracy. But this itty-bitism is not enough. Whether it’s about privacy, bias, anti-competitive activities, or piracy, Google needs to get serious, as Senator Warner encouraged.
After months of deflection, Google finally sent its top executive– CEO Sundar Pichai – to Washington for a private meeting with top Republican lawmakers in October. He will also meet with President Trump later this month. These closed-doors conversations are a far cry from the public testimonies given by Google’s peers in Silicon Valley, but they are a start.
The press, and now the public are paying attention. It’s time for change.
Header photo: NextNewMedia / Shutterstock.com