You’ve heard all about how banks present a danger to the financial system once they become “too big to fail” (I’m looking at you, JPMorgan Chase). Here’s the equivalent question about a much different company: Has Google become too big to trust?
To ask the question is to answer it, but in case that’s not explicit enough, the answer plainly is yes.
It’s become impossible to ignore Google’s lengthening string of privacy and regulatory missteps. The company has been found by the Federal Communications Commission to have collected and kept emails and Web browsing histories, even passwords, of individuals whose Wi-Fi signals were intercepted by vehicles photographing street scenes for its Street View program. Google stands accused of lying about the practice and resisting a government investigation of the case.
The Mountain View, Calif., company appears to have deliberately bypassed privacy settings on the Safari browser loaded on every Apple iPad and iPhone, allowing it to secretly track the online behavior of the devices’ users. That could pose an especially big problem for Google, because in doing so it may have breached a settlement it had reached in a previous federal complaint by agreeing not to misrepresent its privacy practices in the future.
As if that wasn’t alarming enough, Google declared March 1 that it would aggregate the information it gleaned from each user’s activity on its search, mail, document and other services. The company’s argument was that this would allow it to personalize all those services for each user, but it also meant that Google would have more power to exploit users’ personal data than it had ever claimed before.
Veteran Google watchers aren’t surprised at what looks to them like the natural trend line of a company becoming too big and arrogant for its own, or its customers’, good.
“Google looks at laws and getting permission as impediments to making the world a better place,” Scott Cleland, an assiduous Google critic at the business consultancy Precursor, told me. Cleland labels the company’s attitude “Goobris.”
None of this means that you shouldn’t do business with Google or utilize its programs. In many respects Google is an admirable company, and in some respects well ahead of its tech sector peers.
I find its Chrome Web browser to be the best on the market. Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices has become a successful counterweight to Apple’s iOS-driven iPhone, for which anyone wary of creeping monopolization should be grateful. The company hosts a program of lectures for its employees by authors and public figures, and posts the events online. (I’ve participated.) And some of its search capabilities are stunning — just try to find patents from the U.S. patent office as easily as you can find them through Google’s patent search.
In defending its customers against government encroachment on user privacy, Google ranks tops among corporations tracked by the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s “Who Has Your Back?” campaign, by a safe margin. “They’ll stand up to the government when it comes looking for information,” EFF General Counsel Cindy Cohn explained.
Still, that doesn’t mean you should view Google as a public service institution.
Google still trades comfortably on its image as a benevolent, touchy-feely company interested more in the pursuit of good works than the worship of mammon. Google Chief Executive Larry Page put it this way in 2011: “Our ultimate ambition is to transform the overall Google experience, making it beautifully simple, almost automagical, because we understand what you want and can deliver it instantly.”
Then there’s its widely publicized corporate mantra, “Don’t Be Evil.” Leaving aside the phrase’s inherent condescension — just what other corporations do Google co-founders Page and Sergey Brin consider “evil”? — Cleland argues that as a moral standard, it’s not nearly as high-minded as it seems at first blush. After all, a company can engage in a lot of activity that’s harmful, craven, irresponsible, meretricious, reprehensible or even illegal without rising to the level of “evil.”
The limits to Goobris have been getting clearer for some time. Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission said it had hired an ace prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson, to spearhead an antitrust case against the company — a sign that the feds are getting very serious.
As a sign that the reality of Google’s expansive reach is beginning to reach the average consumer, consider the furor created by the terms of service applicable to Google Drive, a recently launched service based in the computing “cloud” that enables users to transfer or sync files among their various computers and mobile devices and those of their colleagues.
The terms give Google a worldwide license to “use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content” to improve its services and create new ones.
Never mind that the terms also guaranteed that Google would claim no “intellectual property rights that you hold in that content” or that they closely resembled those that had been written for other cloud services such as Dropbox. Fears that uploading a file to Google Drive was tantamount to donating it to Google swept the Web, even though some privacy experts considered those concerns overblown.
“The terms of service were vanilla,” Cohn said. Instead, she observes, the furor shows that Google’s seemingly unending series of privacy breaches “have really tested the public’s trust. Google doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore.”
The FCC report on the Street View episode may be the best illustration why. The agency says that for three years starting in mid-2007, Google equipped its vehicles with the ability to capture data from private unencrypted Wi-Fi networks as they roamed the world taking street-level photos for its Google Maps.
It took a while for the company to get its story straight. At first Google denied that it had collected any “payload” data, which could include everything from the Web addresses Wi-Fi users were accessing to the content of their email. Then the company said the data it got were too fragmented to be intelligible. Then it admitted it sometimes collected whole emails, Web addresses and passwords. At first Google said the collection was a mistake, then acknowledged that the capability had been written into the vehicles’ software and management knew all about it. Meanwhile, the FCC said, Google “deliberately impeded and delayed” its investigation. (For that, it fined the company $25,000, which is about as much as Google collected in revenue in the time it took you to read this paragraph.)
Google maintains that it gave the government everything it asked for and blames much of the delay on the FCC’s own dithering. The company also notes that the FCC, as well as other federal agencies, concluded that in collecting data from Wi-Fi networks unprotected by passwords it had not broken the law, which allows access to communications readily available to the public, such as unprotected Wi-Fi systems.
But that may not be the last word on the subject. Briefs in a lawsuit against Google contend that it’s based on a narrow interpretation of a law designed to apply to radio broadcasts, not Wi-Fi; the briefs argue that Google collected data that no user of a Wi-Fi device, password-protected or not, reasonably expected to be Hoovered up by a passing Googlemobile. The issue is now before a federal appellate court in San Francisco.
The best that can be said about all this is that Google is undergoing evolution from a calling to a corporation. Former Google executive James Whittaker, explaining recently why he quit the company, wrote on a Microsoft blog that the Google he joined years ago was “a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”
There’s nothing evil about Google being such a company, but there’s nothing smart about trusting it blindly.
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.