Consumer Watchdog has long held the view that Google's executives are hypocrites, claiming their mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, while remaining deeply secretive about the company's activities.
It wasn't a popular view of the Internet giant. I think many people used to see Google as a feisty start-up offering "cool" products. Many accepted the idea that Google was true to its "Don't Be Evil" motto.
But two articles this week, I think, make it clear people are coming around to Consumer Watchdog's view of Google.
First, a report in The New York Times -- Google Privacy Inquiries Get Little Cooperation -- demonstrates how perceptions about the company are rapidly changing to reflect reality. Reporters David Streitfeld and Kevin J. Obrien put it like this:
Google might be one of the coolest and smartest companies of this or any era, but it also upsets a lot of people — competitors who argue it wields its tremendous weight unfairly, officials like Mr. Caspar who says it ignores local laws, privacy advocates who think it takes too much from its users. Just this week, European antitrust regulators gave the company an ultimatum to change its search business or face legal consequences. American regulators may not be far behind.
The article details how Google obstructed and stonewalled regulators worldwide who were attempting to get to the bottom of Google's Wi-Spy activities. That's when it sent Street View Cars into 30 countries around the world not only to photograph the roads they traveled, but also to suck up emails, passwords and other data from private Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries.
The Times notes:
The FCC did not see it Google’s way, saying last month the engineer “intended to collect, store and review” the data “for possible use in other Google products.” It also said the engineer shared his software code and a “design document” with other members of the Street View team. The data collection may have been misguided, the agency said, but was not accidental.
Although the agency said it could find no violation of American law, it also said the inquiry was inconclusive, because the engineer cited his Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. It tagged Google with a $25,000 fine for obstructing the investigation.
Google executives followed their usual playbook and declined to comment for the Times article.
“We don’t have much choice but to trust Google,” Christian Sandvig, a researcher in communications technology and public policy at the University of Illinois, told the Times. “We rely on them for everything. Google doesn’t seem to think it ever will be held accountable. And to date it hasn’t been.”
Google not only doesn’t want to answer these questions, it doesn’t even believe it is obligated to do so. Indeed, it essentially said as much back in April, when it specifically questioned the authority of the CNIL and the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party to even investigate it. From Google’s April 5, 2012, response to the CNIL:
1) What is the legal basis for the Working Party to act as a regulatory body, or to mandate the CNIL to conduct a regulatory review on behalf of 26 other independent DPAs?
â€¨2) What law is being applied to this review?
â€¨3) Could the Working Party explain the process being followed and the ultimate aim of the review?
Questions respectfully asked, certainly. But they clearly reflect an uncooperativeness and, more to the point, an overweening arrogance that’s so prevalent these days that it might as well be one of Google’s hallowed “10 Things We Know To Be True.”
I think these articles reflect a seachange in the popular attitude toward the Internet giant. But it's not just a change in how Google is perceived that the folks in the Googleplex need to be concerned with. There are active investigations underway by antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Privacy breaches are also a focus of regulators' attention.
And then back to the Wi-Spy scandal. I checked in today with the office of Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. He's leading the multi-state investigation of the incident being conducted by 40 state attorneys general. A spokesperson made it clear; the probe is "active and ongoing."
People are finally getting Google's number. I'm betting that despite the Internet giant's self-righteous arrogance, Google will be held accountable.