Google in trouble – all over the place


Sir Francis Drake is a great English folk hero. He swashed his buckle across the seven seas. Drake’s exploits brought Queen Elizabeth I’s Treasury vast sums of money. He was well loved by Her Majesty. However, to the Spanish Drake was a ruthless, murdering pirate. To West Africans he was a bloody slaver. To the Irish Drake was guilty of what we would now call crimes against humanity.

  • History is often simply what the winner says it is

History is littered with examples of this kind. It’s all a question of perspective. The winner usually writes the script.

It’s the same in the world of modern business. One person’s energetic entrepreneurialism is another’s smash and grab. His get up and go looks like grasping vulgarity to you. Sharp practice can be a synonym for clever when looked at from the other end of the telescope.

  • And so to Google

All this is by way of a prelude to discussing Google. A lot has been happening recently in and around Mountain View, the Californian home of the internet giant.

On the one occasion I worked for Google professionally I was very impressed with their set up. That said, I always knew whilst in certain quarters Google is idolised, in others their name and perfidy are completely interchangeable. Which position you take depends on where you are standing at the time.

  • Phenomenal achievements

Nonetheless whatever your view about Google as a company today, whether or not you think it has strayed too far from its radical roots, you simply cannot argue with the mind-boggling scale of their achievements. The whole internet community, nay the world, owes them an immense debt. Google’s technical ingenuity, vision and ambition have resulted in some breathtaking products.

  • You can be forgiven anything except success

There’s the rub. Among mere mortals you can be forgiven for anything except success. Jealousy and schadenfreude are highly potent if ignoble drivers of human behaviour.

Which is why, when you are on top of the pile, you need to be extra careful not to supply your opponents with ammunition which can be used against you. In this department Google has spectacularly failed. A series of blunders by the company has, incrementally but inexorably, put Google more and more in the frame.

Let’s work our way backwards.

  • To infinity and beyond! Not

Early last year Google made its much anticipated debut in the social networking space. They launched Buzz. Almost immediately there were howls of protest from the privacy people. To be fair, as soon as the howls were heard Google acted promptly to put things right. They did not go into denial or retreat behind writs.

Even so a handful of users launched a class action. Google settled in September, 2010. Altogether it cost them US$8.5 million which, to Google, is less than a quarter of half a bagatelle. Shortly following the settlement Google announced they were creating the post of Privacy Director within the company. We were told consideration of the privacy dimension was going to be built into every stage of their entire product development cycle.

This was mea maxima culpa on a truly grand scale. However, it was not enough to ward off the attentions of the US Government.

  • Enter the US Federal Trade Commission

At the end of March, 2011, in a settlement announced by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Google agreed to submit themselves to biennial privacy reviews for the next 20 years. The reviews will be carried out by independent third parties.

Google was only founded in 1998 so 20 years is longer than the company has existed by more than half. In the world of the internet 20 years is at least two eternities. Such a timeframe makes no sense at all other than as a way for the Feds to send out a very strong message to others. Particularly one other. I think they were looking across from Mountain View to Palo Alto, the nearby HQ of Facebook.

  • Meanwhile, back in Brussels and London

Pardon me for stating the obvious but that decision about independent reviews throws into sharp relief all the shilly shallying we have witnessed in the EU and the UK on exactly the same point.

Admittedly the situations are different. No one has suggested the broad spread of companies in Europe and the UK involved in the discussions on online child protection are engaged in potentially large scale breaches of the law in the way the FTC obviously thought Buzz was. Nevertheless Buzz does show where these things can end up.

I would be astonished if various people in Brussels and London did not reach a similar conclusion and feel emboldened by it.

  • Bringing the boys and girls closer

The launch of Buzz produced another unexpected result. It drew together and sparked what I think is an unprecedented letter of protest. Ten Data Protection, Privacy or Information Commissioners from around the world signed it. Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Holland, New Zealand, Spain and the UK were all in there.

These fiercely independent individuals started to make common cause. Probably this sprang out of a realisation that global companies behave the same way more or less everywhere they pitch their tents. Here is part of what the Commissioners said in their letter

“…..we are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications. We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws. Moreover, this was not the first time you have failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations when launching new services.”

In other words if the problems with Buzz had been the first and only example of Google, as others saw it, overstepping the mark in relation to privacy, people might have been a bit more ready to give them the benefit of the doubt or be a tad more forgiving. The letter from the Commissioners makes clear this wasn’t the first time. Not by a long chalk.

  • Hello Street View

Street View is a Google classic. Huge, imaginative and extremely expensive.

Starting first in the USA back in 2007 Google fitted out motors cars with cameras and sent them out to photograph every street on the planet or at any rate most of them. They launched in the UK in 2009.

Street View integrates with Google Maps. This means when you are going to a new place you can not only get directions you are also able to see what it looks like beforehand. Very handy. No doubt. But…..

  • Parents in Wales were soon on the case

I first learned about Street View when a group of parents in South Wales contacted me. They had just discovered that a picture of their children was on the internet. Initially the parents had no idea how or why this had happened. No one had sought their permission, consulted or warned them. They were very, very cross.

A Street View car had taken the picture in question. It had obviously gone past the children’s school during break time. The photograph the parents were complaining of showed their children in the playground. The level of detail in the image was not quite good enough for me to see individual faces very distinctly. Yet the snapshot was clear enough. Even a drunken man galloping by on horse back would have no problem working out from a glimpse of a computer screen what was to be found there (children) and how old they were (young).

This was not entirely the point. These parents felt their children’s right to privacy, and their duty as parents to protect that right, had been violated without so much as a by your leave. Esoteric discussions about who has a legal right to take a photograph of what or whom missed the mark by a country mile.

Moreover, the way it worked, with a click of a mouse you could get immediate access to Google Maps showing you exactly where the school was. You could see all the approach roads, where the nearby woodlands and parks were, the paths leading from the school to the housing estates. It is not difficult to work out the kind of thoughts that went through these parents’ minds.

  • Not interested in parents’ paranoia

The parents approached Google. They told me they could not get a reply so they asked if I would intervene on their behalf.

Google did reply to me. In essence they said parents’ paranoia was not their problem.

In addition I was told, because obviously I did not know and neither did the worried Mums and Dads of the Valleys, that the information Google had brought together in Google Maps and Street View was already available in real world publications of the more traditional kind, in Town Guides and so on. Good of them to point that out. It was just the sort of sensitive riposte we were all looking for.

But I also knew, and I think the parents worked this out as well, these more old fashioned paper-based maps can be a lot harder to get hold of when compared with a web page. Most definitely paper-based maps are a lot less easy to manipulate.

When you digitise something and put it on the web it changes things. It certainly changes people’s perceptions of things.

  • It didn’t stop there

A little while after the first burst of noise about Street View died down we then learned that into those same vehicles that were taking pictures of our houses and highways Google had also installed a device which sucked in information about the presence of wifi routers. Yes – that’s routers in private homes and businesses. Google was mapping them.

How did that go down? Not very well. In many people’s mind’s eye Google was  crystallizing as Big Brother. He can reach out to your front door, come into your house and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. An English man’s or English woman’s home is no longer his or her castle. No one has yet invented a virtual drawbridge or a cyber moat.

I’m still not finished with this. There’s more. Yet further down the line we finally discover, aside from photographing everybody’s house and picking up data about the location of citizens’ wifi routers, Google was also dragging in other information that happened to be moving on or off the routers as the cars whizzed by. That could include our passwords, security keys or almost anything.

  • Hang on to your routers

I cannot remember how this last twist in the story emerged but when it did Google again immediately issued a statement saying they were stopping it. Google said collecting such data was a mistake. It was not intentional. We were assured they had not used the data they had thus obtained in any way whatsoever.

It later transpired the Google vehicles were anyway moving too quickly, and changing channels too frequently, to collect much useful information, but the key word is much. They did collect some.

Incidentally Google still maintains it has a right to collect the data about the physical presence of wifi routers. I guess with applications like Sky Hook around it is hard to argue with that but context is everything and right now I’d say Google’s context is a long way off being optimal.

  • FTC out FCC in

The FTC decided not to pursue Google on the data collection aspect. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), on the other hand, concluded it had a continuing interest in the matter so their investigation goes on. We await their findings.

  • Before Street View there was Google Earth

Street View was, so to speak, a spin off, the ground level equivalent of an earlier project called Google Earth. It was launched in 2005. Google Earth provides aerial views of the planet’s surface.

The original idea was that Google Earth would cover the whole world, and indeed that is how it started off. This did not last long. Pictures of military and other secret establishments had to be excised or vigorously blurred. Indeed a system was created to allow anyone to make a request that a particular image either be blurred or removed altogether, both in Street View and in Google Earth.

Anyway Google Earth was a further accretion, another bit of worry about what Google is all about. Their ideas about the boundaries of privacy were some way off lots of other people’s.

  • Before Google Earth there was Gmail

If I was to pinpoint a moment when people’s perceptions of Google began to change, and not in a good way, it would be around the launch of Gmail in 2004. It is all wrapped up with how Google obtain and deploy users’ data to feed the company’s life blood which is online advertising.

Gmail is Google’s free web based email service. The problems began when people started to become aware that Google was scanning the contents of Gmail users’ emails. They were doing this in order to serve up ads relevant to the messages in the text of the emails. If you wrote an email to your buddies about a planned holiday surfing in Australia you would more or less immediately start to get ads which tried to sell you surf boards, swimming trunks, the whole nine yards.

It is true Google never tried to hide the fact that they were doing this. On the contrary it is plainly stated in their Terms and Conditions. But then who reads them? So when it did get picked up in the mainstream media that this was happening it caused quite a stir.

  • The literal truth can be deceiving

Mind you, to say Google scans emails is true only in a very literal sense. In fact machines do it. No humans on Google’s staff or in any companies associated with Google actually read the emails. That would be a criminal offence. Google’s algorithms just pick out words and analyse them. They make no attempt to tie back the messages or their contents to an identifiable individual. It’s still more than a little spooky though.

Asking people to separate in their own minds an algorithm from the sentient corporation that built, owns and controls it seems a little hopeful, even counter intuitive.

If a company’s machine can and does look at something most people will instinctively feel that the owners of that machine or their employees could also do the same. That’s not a comfortable place to be.

Google correctly pointed out that almost everyone who provides a webmail service does some sort of scanning of the emails that cross their network, if only to search for spam or viruses. But scanning for spam or viruses and making intelligent interpretations of the content are two very different things.

  • The FTC then ties a ribbon on it

At the time the FTC took the decision to drop proceedings against Google in relation to the unauthorised data collection aspects of the Street View affair, I’m guessing they already knew what was coming down the track on Buzz by way of the consent decree referred to earlier and the independent reviews which it inaugurated. They knew the Buzz remedy would sweep up any remaining doubts about Street View.

And I imagine they also knew they were about to announce a mega investigation into Google’s dominance in the search engine market in the USA, Google’s core business. This announcement came last week, only days after the consent decree for Buzz was unveiled.

Google must think some people inside the Beltway have it in for them. It never rains but it pours. Or as the lawyers might put it where there’s strife there’s hope.

  • How’s it going in Europe?

It’s not only in the USA that Google is attracting increasing regulatory and law enforcement attention.

I have access to a fabulous commercial database which tracks and reports on a broad range of telecommunications and internet policy issues. It was constructed and is maintained by an impressive Belgian consultancy firm called Cullen International. As I was going through it I tripped over a file on Google. Here is a summary of what it shows in just five European countries: France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK.

Each of the five countries continues to pursue Google over Buzz or has had a ruling against Buzz. Each of the five countries continues with actions or investigations around Street View or has had a ruling against Street View. In addition, in the UK there was an out of court agreement or a ruling in Google’s favour in relation to Street View.

There are issues with YouTube in Germany and Italy or there has been a ruling against YouTube. In Spain and France agreements were reached out of court or a ruling was made in YouTube’s favour. Adwords is attracting continuing attention in France, Germany and the UK or AdWords has had a ruling against them.

Cullen’s database lumps together Search, Books and News and each of these has been lively in four out of the five countries.

Doubtless some of the actions I have just listed as on-going will be won by Google but the sheer scale of Google’s legal entanglements does make you wonder what sort of corporate strategy they have locked away in the safe.

  • Memo from the Product Development non-Director

Actually there is more than a fleeting suspicion that prior to the October announcements  referred to earlier, the product development part of Google’s overall strategy looked something like this:

“Dude. That’s a great idea. Put it out there. As quickly as possible. Let’s see what happens. Er. That’s it.”

  • Kids and Google 

Google does provide a suite of applications which can be used in schools. In those instances the Head Teacher and the school are supposed to assume all of the legal responsibilities. But in the wider world it is quite different.

Yes. That’s right. Strictly-speaking in the UK and in very many countries in the world you must be 18 or more to use YouTube and 18 or more to use the Google search engine. Think about it. Isn’t this just outrageous? No kids allowed. Google must know perfectly well this alleged rule is absolutely meaningless so why do they do it?

Here are the relevant extracts from the Terms and Conditions

“2.3 You may not use the Service and may not accept the Terms if (a) you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with YouTube, or (b) you are a person who is either barred or otherwise legally prohibited from receiving or using the Service under the laws of the country in which you are resident or from which you access or use the Service.”


“2.3 You may not use the Services and may not accept the Terms if (a) you are not of legal age to form a binding contract with Google, or (b) you are a person barred from receiving the Services under the laws of the United States or other countries including the country in which you are resident or from which you use the Services.”

  • Google needs to get cuddly again

Google is no longer the disruptive, insouciant start-up. Google has amassed such large amounts of cash – US$35 billion according to a recent newspaper report – they seem to be able to do whatever they want, and that appears to be their intention.

Google needs to get cuddly again. The only way it will do that is if it straightens out a few things. Important things. They should avoid simply splashing the cash in what they think are the right places. Their philanthropic activities are, I am sure, genuinely meant and much appreciated by those who benefit from them. However, they will look increasingly, well, questionable if the much larger picture remains so cloudy.

I have a suggestion.  Do something about those “adults only” clauses. Either make them work or abandon them.

With all of its savvy, with all of its resources Google can do a lot better. A bit less swashbuckling and bit more steady progress is the order of the day.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Age verification, Google, Self-regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s