Google: A Not So Benevolent Giant

Most ordinary users of Google see the tech company, valued at $527 billion, as just a convenient way to quickly determine which 80s pop star sang “Take on Me” for trivia night. (Answer: A-Ha). But a company does not get that rich just because they can help answer random questions.

Google is an international behemoth, even entering into countries with horrific human rights violations and censorship. In those cases, Google often strives to adhere to the national laws and restrictions in order to gain access to the market, deeming that it is better to provide their service with restriction than no service at all. It is not at all surprising that Google has its hands in many different countries. Google’s executives are deeply intertwined with the US State Department. 

What is fascinating to note also is that Google—and other tech companies like it—were some of the leading voices after the Snowden Revelations in anti-government surveillance actions such as Stop Watching Us and The Day We Fight Back. Google even helped form a group with nine other companies (AOL, LinkedIn, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple) called Reform Government Surveillance. However, as we will soon see, perhaps Google needs surveillance reform itself.

A big part of Google is their maps, and with that, the ability to toggle to a Street View. These street views are obtained by these hilarious looking cars that drive around with cameras on top, snapping up images of everything and one around them. Google is mapping in countries around the world—but there is a problem with this. 

Many of the countries in which Google operates have vastly different concepts of privacy than the United States, where Google is headquartered. For example, in most European Union countries, their concept of privacy in public is quite different than the US. Where it is a recognized right in the EU, in the US “American courts are much less receptive than the EU to individual privacy claims.  Although privacy is acknowledged as a fundamental right, it is not explicitly recognized in the U.S. Constitution” (Rakower 2011). While that has been changing a lot through tort case law, law still has a long way to go to catch up to all of the various iterations of privacy invasions with the increase in technological advances. 

Turning back to Google, it was discovered that the company did more than just take photos that breached international standards of privacy. After independent investigations, Google admitted that it was collecting more than just images when doing its Street Views. Google was collecting data about the private wi-fi networks found in homes and businesses, data such as “MAC addresses (the unique device ID for Wi-Fi hotspots), network SSIDs (the user-assigned network ID name) tied to location information for private wireless networks, and Wi-Fi “payload” data, which included emails, passwords, usernames and website URLs” (FCC Investigation of Google Street View). The FCC report reveals that Google was doing this for business purposes and many within the company took part, reviewing documents associated with the collection of Street View data.

Countries such as France, South Korea, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Spain were furious, as this collection was against their data protection laws. In 2012, Google was found guilty in nine countries of violating privacy laws, and investigations are continuing in twelve other countries. Not only that, but within the US this violated Section 705 of the Communications Act, which is part of the Federal Wiretap Act. An investigation by the FCC ensued, and the case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court in Joffe v. Google in 2010. Litigation is still ongoing. However, a $7 million settlement was reached between Google and 38 state attorney generals for privacy violations related to Street View.

As can plainly be seen now, Google is not a benevolent giant aiming only to help answer trivia questions. Just like any other company, Google seeks to maintain its bottom line.