Since the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s reputation has been on a much-deserved downward spiral, while Google has happily stepped back and watched Facebook grab the bulk of the bad news headlines.
That’s kind of strange because, during that time, Google has paid an aggregate nine billion dollars worth of antitrust fines dished out by the European Union.
In a world where Google’s parent company, Alphabet, now has a market value of more than $700 billion, $9 billion sounds paltry. But, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of bad stuff for which Google has been called out over the years, including facilitating pedophilia, anti-vaccination campaigns, privacy invasion, and other harms to society; its willingness (only recently disclaimed) to work with an oppressive foreign government on a censored search engine; and its relentless siphoning of creative industry revenues through the enabling of, and sometimes active participation in, widespread copyright infringement.
As a public service, we’ve assembled this recap of Google’s greatest hits. It goes back a long way but it pays to recall all this history, helping us to remember just how far away Google has moved from its one-time (and long since abandoned) motto of “Don’t Be Evil.”
August 18, 2004
Google makes its unofficial corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” part of the public record, devoting an entire section to the catchphrase in their public offering prospectus. “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.” Let’s see how they’ve done since then.
August 30, 2005
On this date, we begin to learn that the laws, particularly those that protect creatives, are mere inconveniences for Google. Today, they launch a project called Google Print (later Google Books), which attempts to scan and make public virtually every printed book on earth. Not surprisingly, publishers and authors around the planet, including the Authors Guild, bristle at Google’s audacious pirating of their intellectual property. Oh, no problem, Google says, just tell us which of your titles you don’t want digitized and we won’t do it. In other words, this is an early example of Google’s “we’ll do it until someone tells us not to” approach to copyright, in which it dodges accountability for theft on its platform by putting the burden of enforcement on those being stolen from. This is only the beginning.
January 26, 2006
Google wraps itself in the mantle of free speech and free information, but now they take a head-first dive into hypocrisy when they unveil a special Chinese search engine that carefully removes certain search results that might offend a controlling, authoritarian nation state. To the surprise of no one, it does not go well – but that won’t stop Google from trying again down the road (see: 2018). So maybe information in China isn’t so free… but does that really matter when it gives Google a shot at big bucks from putting ads in front of a couple of billion more eyeballs? Yeah, well, maybe…
October 10, 2006
“In 2006, YouTube was basically America’s Funniest Online Videos + illegal SNL clips,” writes The Ringer. But, Google has bigger visions. Today, it acquires the video giant for a then-staggering $1.65 billion, overlooking the fact that YouTube is already corroded with, as NBC News put it, “volumes of copyrighted material” and will “be sued into oblivion.” Google bets big that it can win a lawsuit. And somehow, they do. (See March 2007 and April 2013.)
March 13, 2007
Well, that didn’t take long. Less than a year after purchasing one of the world’s biggest piracy sites, Google faces a $1 billion lawsuit from Viacom for allegedly hosting roughly 160,000 unauthorized clips culled from outlets ranging from Comedy Central to MTV. The suit is notable not only for how it exposes Google’s wanton shamelessness in profiting from content it did not own, but also for inspiring the development of Content ID – a copyright protection tool that works for big content companies like Viacom but, to this day, does absolutely nothing for smaller-scale creatives whose works are misappropriated on YouTube. Even more notably, as we’ll see in our 2013 entry, Viacom will lose the suit.
October 17, 2008
Anyone remember this weird moment in history when Google is fully ready to make an ad-revenue sharing deal with Yahoo? But then Google kills it, as this fascinating Wired story recounts, because of a single meeting with Department of Justice officials in which it becomes clear the U.S. government would view the arrangement as a monopoly threat. According to Wired, the broken deal marks a turning point for Google’s reputation. “They have permanently invited the scrutiny of the Justice Department into every future deal they do,” says one advertising consultant quoted in Wired. “Now they have monopolist written all over them.” More than 10 years later, they still do… but in larger type.
March 18, 2010
Well, of course, we at CreativeFuture are always going to complain that YouTube is a pirate site. But, why take our word for it? Google’s own executives admit it, too! Today, The Mercury News reveals leaked internal communications showing that “many top Googlers,” including co-founder Sergey Brin, are “concerned about YouTube’s copyright piracy problems and how they could reflect badly on Google’s ethics.” Ethics? “Don’t Be Evil”? Is that thing still around? Well, yes, they’ll keep pretending for a while (see May 2018).
April 18, 2013
Though appeals would drag the case on for another year, today Viacom loses its $1 billion copyright lawsuit against YouTube. Under the “safe harbor provisions” of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal judge concludes, YouTube is not responsible for scouring its website for infringing videos – only for taking them down after receiving complaints from copyright holders. Translation: “The burden of copyright protection isn’t YouTube’s. It’s yours. Good luck!” Years later, we get to “celebrate” that Google’s YouTube and Search alone receive an estimated 900 MILLION takedown notices in 2017!
April 15, 2015
You know all that talk we are hearing now about “break up Google”? Well, this is when it all begins. For the first time, the European Union formally accuses Google of abusing its dominance in web searches. These legal actions proceed as slowly and creakily as a World War II battleship – and it’s still not even close to its destination – but hey, at least it’s moving.
June 27, 2017
Today, the European Union levies a $2.7 billion penalty against Google, claiming the company’s favoring of its own shopping service in certain search results violates competition law. It’s a fine that would be ruinous for most companies – Google, of course, could pay it with the change between the seat cushions in Sundar Pichai’s private jet. But it’s still an objectively large sum of money – and a sign that Europe does not intend to be nearly as complacent as the U.S. when it comes to holding Google accountable.
July 11, 2017
We can trust academics, right? Researchers are supposed to be independent and all about the facts. Well, if you still believe that, you might believe in Santa Claus, too. This is the day when a new report from Campaign for Accountability reveals that Google “in some way” funds a staggering 329 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on “public policy matters of interest to Google….” Authors of the articles hail from some of the most prestigious universities in America, including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, and many of them do not disclose Google’s funding. “Google should address its record of academic astroturfing,” writes Campaign for Accountability, “which puts it in the same league as Big Oil and Big Tobacco.” We couldn’t agree more.
September 27, 2017
Another test for “Don’t Be Evil”: It comes to light that Google “has enlisted its broad network of paid policy groups to fight legislation that would remove a legal shield for websites that knowingly profit from child sex-trafficking.” Turns out groups funded by Google, or its parent company Alphabet, are unleashing dozens of op-eds, blog posts, action alerts, coalition letters, and other materials opposing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which seeks to remove a legal liability shield for websites that knowingly profit from child sex-trafficking. “With few exceptions, the groups failed to disclose Google’s financial support of their organizations or the academic institutions where they are employed,” writes the Campaign for Accountability. Huh. Apparently, Google doesn’t want to let the world know it’s trying to crush a bill that fights… child sex trafficking on the internet.
November 6, 2017
Look, we get it – you’re at a restaurant or trying to watch a little Netflix at home. It’s been a long day and the kids are driving you crazy. It’s so easy just to hand them the iPad and let them watch YouTube so they’ll just leave you alone for a while. But please, stop doing that. “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale,” writes artist James Bridle in a viral Medium post, “and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.” It sounds alarmist, but it’s not. Bridle’s long and very troubled account of what’s really happening on Google’s video behemoth will make you feel that your sanity is slipping down a wormhole from whence it may never escape. Read it, then put on a nice DVD and hold your kids close.
February 2, 2018
Historians will be arguing this query forever, but today’s riveting Guardian story makes a pretty convincing case that YouTube at least had something to do with it. The piece focuses on an ex-YouTube engineer who, armed with a deep understanding of how the company’s algorithm exploits human psychology, wrote his own program to “explore bias” in the site’s ocean of content. He found statistical evidence of a recommendation engine that was decidedly “not neutral during the presidential race,” pushing videos to more than 150 million people that were damaging to Hillary Clinton, regardless of the political preference of the user. Regardless of your particular persuasion, the content of these biased videos has to be troubling: misinformation, conspiracy videos, fake news, and other harmful content that had, and has, the effect of “leading people down hateful rabbit holes.” Maybe YouTube swung an election, maybe it didn’t, but one thing is for sure: It’s toxic.
April 4, 2018
For a company that touts its luxurious offices and unrivaled perks, Google has endured a surprising number of protests from its staff. Today’s resistance comes in the form of an internal letter, signed by thousands of workers unhappy with Google’s involvement in a Pentagon program involving targeted drone strikes. Turns out even massage rooms and gourmet cafeterias aren’t going to cut it if your workforce believes its employer is, as the letter states, “in the business of war.”
May 18, 2018
Hey, somebody just noticed that this “Don’t Be Evil” thing is still in Google’s official employee code of conduct. So, today, they remove it. It’s a sign that the company knows it hasn’t exactly been living up to its valiant credo, and that keeping it around will probably give people like us some comedic fodder. Why set a standard of accountability you never intended to meet?
July 18, 2018
In June 2017, it was $2.7 billion. Now the European Union fines Google a staggering $5.1 billion – this time for abusing its power in the mobile phone market via Android. Google will, of course, appeal the decision, and the case is likely to drag on for years, but we admire European competition policy chief Margrethe Vestager’s moxie. She’s tired of global internet heavyweights running rampant in her neighborhood and wants to do something about it. “Europe has largely acted alone in its regulatory actions against Silicon Valley titans,” writes The New York Times, “though there have been signs recently of shifting attitudes and a tougher stance by officials in the United States.” It’s about time.
August 1, 2018
China ethnically profiles their citizens using facial recognition (and shares the technology to do so with other authoritarian countries), trawls people’s social media activity to give them “citizen scores” that could affect their credit rating or ability to travel, and forces private companies to assist the government with spying on the populace. And yet, China’s 1.4 billion potential internet users are like catnip to Google. How else to explain why, after already pulling one search engine out of the country over censorship concerns, back in 2010, Google is ready to try again – with plans to “launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest,” writes The Intercept. Ugh. The stink of pure, unadulterated greed is strong on this one. A year later, Google is still trying to deny they planned this… unconvincingly.
August 13, 2018
By now, many of us are onto Google’s aggressive collecting of our location data via apps like Google Maps. And, many of us have even tried to keep it from happening – by turning off a setting called “Location History” on our devices, which Google promised would make it so that “the places you go are no longer stored.” Uh, nope, ain’t true. There are, in fact, many apps spread through the Android ecosystem – and, in turn, across the Android devices of some 2 billion users – that still find plenty of ways to collect your location data whether you turn the setting off or not. It all kind of makes you realize, with slow, creeping dread, just how vast and complex Google’s surveillance operation really is, and how impossible it is to escape from it.
September 5, 2018
Don’t you hate it when you invite that special someone to your party, and they just don’t come? That’s what happened to the Senate Intelligence Committee, who asked Google to send one of its top executives to Washington for the most fun party of the year – a hearing on “Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms.” Cool kids Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey appear for the proceedings, but Google is a no-show, and the irate Senators mark the slight with an empty chair at the spot where the Google representative would have sat. It feels like a moment in regulatory history – when a company already under fire with the government throws unnecessary gasoline on the flames, just because they think they can.
September 11, 2018
If dysfunctional internet platforms had a nickel for every time they were “under investigation” somewhere in the world, maybe they could use that cash to put an end to their dysfunctional, ad-driven business model. Today, the Attorney General of Arizona opens up an investigation into Google’s “apparent tracking of consumer movement even if you opt out of such services.” The kicker is Arizona fines businesses up to $10,000 per violation of its law prohibiting them from deceiving users about their practices. That could add up to a lot of nickels.
October 8, 2018
Maybe Google was getting jealous of all the press Facebook has been getting for its dozens of data breaches. Today, we learn that a bug in its terminally ill social media platform, Google+, exposed the private data of more than 500,000 users for more than three years. To address the leak, Google pledges to eliminate the failed Google+ service … even sooner than it had already been planning to. It does not, however, pledge to finally explain how on earth Google Circles were supposed to work.
October 25, 2018
Scenario: One of your high-ranking employees is credibly accused by another employee of sexual misconduct. Do you: (A) fire them immediately, paying them little to nothing on their way out, or (B) hand them an exit package worth nearly $100 million and wish them the fondest of farewells in a public statement? Upon learning that Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software, coerced a coworker into performing oral sex on him in a hotel room, Google chooses Option B. They pay the guy $90 million in severance, or $2 million a month for the next four years. That’s a lot of money for behaving terribly. Even worse? “Mr. Rubin was one of three executives that Google protected over the past decade after they were accused of sexual misconduct,” writes The New York Times. Wow, they got rid of “Don’t Be Evil” just in time for this one!
November 1, 2018
Well, that didn’t take long. Just one week after learning of the above incident in which their employer rewarded a sexually-harassing executive with a $90 million buyout, more than 1,000 Google staffers today stage a walkout. Protest organizers also write an op-ed for New York Magazine in which they demand “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and the systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.” Turns out the toxic culture Google has fomented on the internet comes from within.
November 28, 2018
This employee protest thing at Google is really catching on. With global walkouts over company sexual harassment policies still fresh in the rearview mirror, today’s resistance takes the form of a public letter, signed by more than 400 employees, blasting the China search engine project. “We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months,” they write. “International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project.”
December 10, 2018
First, Google’s failed social media platform, Google+, exposed 500,000 users’ private information in a data breach. Scratch that. Now, we learn that, in a separate and unrelated incident, it also managed to leak “information like email addresses profile data” of 52.5 million of its users. Apparently, Google quickly found the flaw and corrected it, and, with the demise of the platform already imminent, nobody seems too particularly riled up over this little snafu. Still, there is something shocking and confounding about this news – i.e., we just can’t believe that 52.5 million people were actually using Google+!
December 11, 2018
After ghosting a Senate hearing back in September, Google plays nice, sending none other than CEO Sundar Pichai to Capitol Hill to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee. However, for those of us who hope for a deep cross-examination of an unaccountable internet juggernaut, the event is a bust. Pichai mostly gives evasive answers to questions on urgent issues such as his company’s alleged plans for a censored search engine in China. And, in the view of many, the representatives waste too much time grandstanding to their respective voter bases. “It was a foreboding reminder of Congress’s continued technological ignorance,” writes Wired, “and a sign that while lawmakers almost unilaterally agree that something must be done about tech giants’ tremendous power, they remain unwilling to set aside partisan squabbles to actually do anything about it.”
January 22, 2019
Ah, America, where democracy is bought and sold by the wealthy and powerful. And, no one is wealthier, more powerful, and better at using their wealth and power to shape policy than Google. From covertly funding academic “research” that helps them crush copyright and competition, to pouring political contributions into Washington, nobody shapes the narrative in their favor like Google. Today, a quarterly filing to Congress reveals that, in 2018, Google outdid even its own record, with its parent Alphabet spending a company-record-breaking $20 million on lobbying efforts. Hey, if you had lawmakers weighing new privacy and antitrust rules to reign in your previously unchallenged dominance, you’d probably cough up a little cheddar, too.
February 11, 2019
This is just grim – and the world is still not outraged enough by it. For offering a platform where recommended videos not only facilitate child exploitation, but are monetized in the process, YouTube deserves some real punishment. Instead, it removes some channels and loses a few. Another day, another crisis managed.
May 1, 2019
Now, Google employees are launching a fourth protest. Today in meta-protest news, we get allegations of retaliation from Google against employees who took part in another recent protest – last November’s walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. Since then, certain employees filed claims of being demoted for their participation, while others had their jobs restructured. So, once again, Google’s beleaguered workers feel compelled “to sit together and show retaliation,” read today’s tweet from the Twitter account Google Walkout For Real Change (GWFRC), and to “be in solidarity with those withstanding this chilling practice.” Just one point of confusion about that brand. You need to specify the “chilling practice” you are referring to, GWFRC – there are just so many from which to choose!
May 30, 2019
The Tweet Thread That Broke (YouTube’s Carefully Honed Illusion of Properly Responding to Hate Speech on) the Internet
Today, a tweet thread from liberal Vox host Carlos Maza (Strikethrough) relates his years-long struggle with harassment on YouTube. The primary source of his woes is rightwing YouTuber Steven Crowder, who frequently motivates his three million subscribers to attack Maza in droves over his sexuality and ethnicity (Maza is gay and Hispanic). But, the real villain exposed by the thread is YouTube itself, and the company’s utter failure to respond to Maza’s pleas for them to step in and stop the incessant hate speech and cyberbullying. “I’m not mad at Crowder,” Maza writes. “There will always be monsters in the world. I’m f**king pissed at @YouTube, which claims to support its LGBT creators, and has explicit policies against harassment and bullying.” The tweet storm will go viral. And, after even more waffling, YouTube will finally address Maza’s claims in a meaningful way. Turns out there’s only one surefire way to get help from the platform that helped make public shaming a natural part of online life – you have to publicly shame them.
May 31, 2019
Google is no stranger to antitrust investigations and even penalties, but today’s news of a Justice Department antitrust exploration into the company’s advertising and search practices just feels different somehow. Like maybe, just maybe, something big could come from it. Could it be the dawning realization from our most prominent leaders that, as Elizabeth Warren put it, a small number of companies, including Google, have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy”? In a word, yes.
June 8, 2019
Today, in a troubling New York Times exposé, we learn just how far wrong the YouTube business model can go. The platform’s algorithm is designed to keep viewers engaged for as long as possible, serving up an endless stream of recommended videos that demand attention through increasingly extreme interpretations of the given subject matter. For college dropout Caleb Cain, that subject matter was conspiratorial, frequently white supremacist, content that led him “down the alt-right rabbit hole.” Cain would eventually emerge from the morass to become an outspoken advocate against such hate speech – but he was just one of many who have and will be radicalized by “a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.”
June 16, 2019
Google loves to tout its anti-piracy successes, even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary – such as today’s news that millions of people around the world use YouTube to illegally stream pay-per-view boxing events. For instance, a recent heavyweight championship bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz was plagued by 13 million online viewers turning to illegal means to view it. The kicker? 93% of that illegal audience share came from YouTube. It’s just more proof that while Google may claim it’s fighting theft on its world-conquering video platform, it’s actually enabling it as much as ever.
June 19, 2019
Just when you thought Google couldn’t be any more cynical and aggressive with its data collection practices, turns out the company has been targeting your children. Today, we learn that the Federal Trade Commission is in the “advanced stages” of an investigation into complaints that YouTube “had collected data of young users.” If proven true, such behavior is in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, adding to the list of troubling issues with YouTube and its millions of child-age users. The real question is, why on earth does YouTube still have child-age users?
June 30, 2019
Put another mark on the ol’ Google employee protest tally, as several of the company’s LGBTQ+ staffers organize against the company’s recent decision to keep homophobic commentator Steven Crowder’s YouTube account live. The protestors take to the streets of San Francisco, marching and waving anti-Google signs in the city’s annual Pride Parade – but not before first trying to convince the parade’s organizers to deny Google’s participation from the event entirely. For those counting, this is the fifth act of organized dissent from Google employees on this timeline.
The Time for Change Is Now
Google provides a service – its all-powerful search engine – that is essential to using the internet. To many people, Google is the internet, a service as fundamental to the online world as plumbing is to the real world. And, with its control of more than 88% of the global market share for search engines, it’s hard to argue otherwise. If you’re going to use the internet, it’s very difficult to do so without using Google.
But here’s the thing – Google isn’t the internet. It’s a business that happens to have a monopoly-like grip on a service that is fundamental to internet usage. Its ubiquity has probably made too many of us complacent about holding Google accountable, but it’s time to wake up!
This is a company with an overwhelming history of carelessness and a profits-before-people operating style that has endangered our children, supported hostile and dangerous nation states, and spread and fomented hate and divisiveness – and much, much more.
So with all of these transgressions, why hasn’t Google yet had a watershed moment of public backlash, as Cambridge Analytica was for Facebook? Its transgressions are like a massive leaky faucet, a constant drip-drip-drip where each drop is a watershed moment. Maybe the constant, thunderous splash of Google’s misdeeds has lulled us all to sleep despite their magnitude and societal impact. This constant deluge is turning our society black with corrosion as it erodes our trust in each other and in the institutions that help keep democracy strong.
Facebook continues to take the heat in the public eye, but Google’s wrongdoing and irresponsibility are just as potent. These two behemoths are like massive snowballs hurtling down the hill in a race to the bottom, gathering up crud and filth and whatever else they hit along the way. It’s time to stop this runaway avalanche, and demand change. It’s time for #PlatformAccountability.