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Congress Needs to Search for Google Transparency

Politico
http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0612/77537.html

Originally posted on 6.18.2012 on POLITICO. You can view it here.

A billionaire media mogul is forced to take responsibility after his employees hack into the private communications of families and use the information for his media empire’s profit. He insists top executives did not know and a few rogue employees were to blame. But the evidence contradicts him.

The government committee investigating these actions grills the plutocrat and concludes he is “not fit“ to lead. His top underlings now face arrest.

That’s the Rupert Murdoch story in London. On this side of the Atlantic, however, Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page is overseeing privacy invasions far wider than Murdoch’s. Yet his corporation is still avoiding serious scrutiny.

The Murdoch hacking scandal affected many lives, but Google’s map-making Street View cars hacked into millions of private Wi-Fi Networks in 30 countries around the world. They sucked up personal data — email, banking information and passwords and other information. The Federal Communications Commission has fined Google a mere $25,000 for impeding its investigation of Google’s Wi-Spying.

While Google tried to blame this entire enterprise on a rogue engineer, the FCC found that the engineer told many others at the company about the wireless data collection — despite the company’s denials that anyone else knew. The scheme was even outlined in Street View project design documents.

Google last Tuesday released to POLITICO a wide range of documents — presumably to pre-empt a Freedom of Information request from Consumer Watchdog. The papers underscored just how many Google employees knew or should have known about the Street View Wi-Spy snooping.

We’ll see how shareholders respond to this at the annual stockholders meeting on Thursday.

Meanwhile, why hasn’t Page been called before Congress to testify under oath about what he knew and when he knew it? Are new media companies viewed as less dangerous than old?

Every new business that Google enters depends on how it meshes with its main occupation — digitally profiling us and selling our information to advertisers. For example, will the Google “robot cars” that just won the right to drive in Nevada, and are on a fast track for California approval, collect data about our travels?

Google’s media empire dwarfs Murdoch’s. The corporation controls more than 65 percent of Internet searches and 97 percent of mobile searches — as well as 85 percent of global search advertising, 44.1 percent of all global Internet advertising and 70 percent of global mobile advertising.

The European Union, acknowledging Google’s antitrust threat, recently warned the company that it needed to address four significant anti-competitive issues or face fines up to 10 percent of its worldwide revenue of $38 billion.

The EU expressed concern that Google had a monopoly in the search industry, skewed results to favor its own services, unreasonably took content from other sites, restricted how advertising is run on its search engine and curbed advertisers’ ability to run ads developed for Google on competitors’ Web platforms.

The Federal Trade Commission is now reportedly stepping up its own antitrust probe.

Google owns the fast-growing Web browser Chrome, and its Android operating system now dominates mobile devices, with 59 percent of the worldwide market. The company reaps 98 percent of its revenue from online advertising — its business is tracking us, its users, and then serving us up to corporate advertisers.

The corporate monolith does this in ways that Murdoch, a content creator, could not even imagine. In a sense, Google is a virtual corporate eye capable of watching everyone in the world with a computer, mobile phone and email account. And we can’t pull down the shades.

The antitrust investigations on both sides of the Atlantic are crucial. But there also needs to be a full public accounting of the Wi-Spy scandal. The question Congress must answer now is whether Page, Google’s CEO, was aware of, or sanctioned, through inaction, the Street View hacking.

Page has said he wants to “supercharge the entire Android eco-system.” One key to that supercharge was Google’s sniffing out Wi-Fi transmitters to better locate Android phone users.

Page oversaw Google’s move to mobile and pushed for it. He should be asked under oath, in no less direct terms than Murdoch was, what he knew and what he didn’t.

Google now fields a major lobbying effort, which soared 240 percent to $5.03 million in the first quarter of this year. Page also maintains close ties to the White House. But this can’t indemnify the company.

Murdoch’s long-standing political relationships protected him for years in Britain. But many leading British officials are now paying a price. Washington politicians’ ties to Google connection may well come back to haunt them. For the privileges of a media mogul don’t trump the public’s right to know.

Page described his company: “Our goal is to organize the world’s information and to make it universally accessible and useful.”

That means knowing more about us than we may want. But it should also mean that the same lens of disclosure and transparency applies to Google and its dealings that Page expects from us.


Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit public interest group and the author of “The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell.” John M. Simpson is the director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project. Contact them at Jamie@consumerwatchdog.org or John@consmerwatchdog.org.