The FCC’s Google Street View wiretapping investigation proved that Google’s public representations it was just a mistake one rogue engineer — that the FTC and foreign law enforcement relied upon to close their investigations — were untrue. Going forward, law enforcement must remember the old adage: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
I. Top Ten List of Untrue Google stories
1. Street View WiFi was a mistake of one engineer.
2. Google works for users.
3. Competition is a click away.
4. Google search is unbiased.
5. Google clearly identifies its advertising.
6. Privacy is a high priority at Google.
7. “We are a law abiding company.”
8. “We do not steal.”
9. Google’s “Don’t be evil” credo creates a morally superior company.
10. Google is open.
II. What other Google stories are untrue?
Google works for users – Google deceptive story #2. Google’s corporate philosophy prominently displayed on the “About Google” page represents: “Ten Things we know to be true. #1 Focus on the user and all else will follow. Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.”
The truth is that users are not the customers for which Google works, users are the product that Google effectively sells to advertisers. With ~99% of their ~$39b in annual revenues coming from advertisers, Google is obviously in the advertising business and its financial interests are aligned with advertisers not users. Remarkably in Google’s public representation of its business on its website under: “What We Do,” there is no clear representation that Google is an advertising company or that Google’s paying customers are advertisers.
The ultimate outcomes of the EU and FTC antitrust investigations and litigations will determine factually whether Google’s business works for users as they represent, or advertisers as the financials and spending show. Tellingly, virtually all of Google’s customer-facing personnel serve advertisers, and virtually all of its users find it near-impossible to reach a Google employee by phone or email to address their concerns.
Competition is a click away — Google deceptive story #3. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained Google’s oft-stated primary antitrust defense. “We are one click away from losing you as a customer, so it is very difficult to lock you in as a customer in a way that traditional companies have.” This fundamental Google antirust defense story line is not true. First, it fails the dictionary test in that the dictionary definition of a “customer” is “one that buys goods or services,” when search is free. Second, it fails the real world test, in that if users were Google customers, why does Google have no customer service operation for users or a way for a user to connect with a Google employee? Lastly, it fails the law enforcement test in that the DOJ, FTC, and EU have already determined that Google’s customers are advertisers not users.
Google search is unbiased — Google deceptive story #4. Google’s search results “are unbiased and objective,” per Google’s 2004 Founders Letter. “We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank. Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust.” per Google’s longstanding management philosophy.
Once again, the ultimate outcome of the EU and FTC antitrust investigations/litigations will determine if this public representation Google has used to build and maintain users’ trust is untrue. Preliminary official findings — found in the U.S. Senate Antirust Subcommittee letter to the FTC and the reported initial findings of EU antitrust staff — do not bode well for the truthfulness of Google’s story that its search is unbiased and never manipulated.
Problematically, a 2000 Stanford research paper by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin concluded emphatically that advertising-funded search engines were inherently biased: “…we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious.”
Google clearly identifies its advertising — Google deceptive story #5. “Advertising on Google is always clearly identified as a “Sponsored Link,” so it does not compromise the integrity of our search results,” per Google’s corporate philosophy. Google implies that its search has integrity because it clearly identifies ads. That is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently won a decision from Australia’s Full Federal Court that some Google advertising “was likely to mislead or deceive consumers.”
In addition, the research of Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ben Edelman has exposed that Google is far from clearly identifying its advertising. “The FTC has called for “clear and conspicuous disclosures” in advertisement labels at search engines, and the FTC specifically emphasized the need for “terms and a format that are easy for consumers to understand.” Unfortunately, Google’s new advertisement labels fail this test: Google’s “Ads” label is the smallest text on the page, far too easily overlooked; Google’s algorithmic and advertisement results are merged within a single set of listings; Google’s “Help” explanations are inaccurate; and Google uses inconsistent labels mere inches apart within search results, as well as across services.”
Privacy is a high priority at Google — Google Deceptive Story #6. “Putting our users first also means that we are deeply committed to their privacy…” per Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong in 2009 testimony before the House on Privacy. At “Google, privacy is something we think about every day across every level of our company. We make this effort because privacy is both good for our users and critical for our business,” per Google’s Privacy lead Alma Whitten in testimony before the Senate in 2010. “Our business depends on protecting the privacy and security of our users. Without the trust of our users, they will simply switch to competing services, which are always just one click away,” per Google’s Director of Public Policy, Alan Davidson, in testimony before the Senate in 2011.
“We are a law abiding company” — Google deceptive story #7. Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt told the British Daily Mail last year that “we are a law abiding company.” Google’s long rap sheet belies Google’s story-telling. History likely will judge Google less by their self-puffed Googley Do-Right image and more by the accumulated facts of its above-the-law behavior and its robber baron public record.
“We do not steal” — Google deceptive story #8. Last year, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the French newspaper Liberation: “we do not steal.” Sadly, Google’s public record shows a pattern of systematic theft of others property: trademarks, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, contact lists and private information, via at least eight distinct patterns of theft perpetrated over several years time.
Google’s “don’t be evil” credo creates a morally superior company — Google deceptive story #9. Just last month, Google CEO Larry Page reaffirmed Google’s ethical and moral aspirations in Mr. Page’s “2012 update from the CEO.” It stated under the header “Love and trust:” “We have always wanted Google to be a company that is deserving of great love. But we recognize this is an ambitious goal because most large companies are not well-loved;” and “We have always believed that it is possible to make money without being evil.”
Google’s strong implication again is that Google is morally superior to other “large companies” who make money “being evil.” However, a detailed comparison of Google’s behavior with Google’s trumpeted high ethical/moral standards raises serious questions about whether Google indeed practices what it preaches.
Google is open. — Google deceptive story #10. To trumpet Google’s openness bona fides, Google SVP Jonathan Rosenberg posted “The meaning of open,” essentially proclaiming Google the paragon of openness. However, when one fact-checks Google’s record it proves overstated and not entirely true. For example, Udi Mandber, Google’s VP for search quality famously posted about Google: “We are, to be honest, quite secretive about what we do.”
The FCC’s investigation provided a bay window view into Google’s culture of deception. Google’s legendary PR machine and storytelling capability convinced eighteen countries to end their investigations of Street View’s WiSpy scandal based on emphatic Google representations it was a just mistake of one person and that the company overall was not involved or culpable in the process. The FCC’s investigation exposed those representations as patently untrue.
As the old adage teaches, now that global law enforcement has been badly fooled by Google for years — in the highest profile, most-global privacy scandal in the world — the shame is on Google. However, if global law enforcement now allows itself to be fooled again by Google’s slickest of storytelling operations, (concerning the wide swath of law enforcement problems before them: antitrust, privacy, fraud, property infringement, etc.) — the shame will be on global law enforcement. Forewarned is forearmed.