We Know Who You Are
Schmidt speaking at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe.
“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the Internet?”
Google Inc. is back in the news this week, with a fresh round of headlines about the search giant and government censorship. Ironically–though perhaps not surprisingly for the corporate media–the stories are not about Google’s admitted but classified relationship with government agencies like the NSA, though. Instead, they portray the internet company as a protagonist sticking up for users’ privacy rights against governments that are increasingly interested in
blocking, scrubbing or banning links, search results, and online videos that those governments want to suppress.
Under headlines like “Google reports ‘alarming’ rise in government censorship requests” and “Google Sees Surge in Censorship Demands,” writers for mainstream publications are dutifully outlining the results of a new Google Inc. transparency report detailing precisely how many times they have been petitioned by governments around the world to censor, block, or scrub material that they find unlawful or objectionable.
The report outlines, for instance, that the US government made 6,192 separate requests for Google to remove information from its services in the latter half of 2011, up from 757 requests in the first half of that year.
Other reports highlight government requests for Google to remove videos from YouTube, including the Thai governments’ request to remove access to hundreds of videos insulting the king (which Google complied with) and Canada’s request to remove a video of a Canadian flushing his passport down the toilet, which Google did not comply with.
The report makes clear that governments are increasingly turning to Google to expunge information that they don’t like–or at least access to that information–from the internet.
As a PR exercise, Google’s latest report is brilliantly executed and timed, deflecting some of the negative press that the company has received in recent weeks over the ongoing Street View debacle, even as it allows news outlets to portray the company as a valiant defender of users’ privacy against increasingly invasive governments. Conveniently left out of the equation is the company’s past, its own repeated violations and abuses of users’ privacy, and the unsettling statements that its executives have made about the very concept of privacy time and again over the years.
Google has always attempted to project itself as the white hat in the wild west of the modern internet. Cloaked in its cutesy “Don’t Be Evil” corporate slogan and its user-friendly design, the company has grown from a simple search engine into one of the largest assemblies of information in the history of the world without the type of scrutiny that one would expect during such a transformation.
The company sprang from PageRank, the end result of a 1996 research project by Stanford University graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin that helped users find relevant websites from search queries by counting incoming links to a site. From this simple idea, the pair created the first incarnation of their website on the Stanford University servers, then registered the google domain name in 1997 and incorporated in 1998.
The company had as its explicit goal, the quest to catalogue, organize, and make accessible the sum total of human knowledge, and was aided in this ambitious quest by successive rounds of venture capital funding. Within a decade, it had already made significant inroads on its quest for total information awareness, having branched out into 3D satellite mapping services, launched highly popular webmail and cloud storage services, created its own web browser, acquired YouTube, and branched into mobile technologies with the Android smartphone.
It is not precisely clear when the company caught the attention of America’s intelligence agencies, but high-level whistleblowers suggest it was early on in the company’s history. In a 2006 interview, ex-CIA agent Robert David Steele suggested that it was from the very outset.
“I think Google took money from the CIA when it was poor and it was starting up,” Steele said in the interview. “They’ve been together for quite a while.”
Steele also fingered the company’s point man in the CIA: Dr. Rick Steinheiser in the Office of Research and Development. No further information has been revealed about the precise nature of that relationship, but tidbits continue to emerge from time to time.
It was widely reported in 2010, for example, that Google was in a working relationship with the US National Security Agency. The donation-funded Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit requesting details of that relationship, but that suit was thrown out earlier this year. Details of the NSA/Google relationship are effectively classified.
There are also examples of the government-corporate revolving door that make observers of companies like Monsanto and Halliburton uneasy. It was reported earlier this year, for instance, that Regina Dugan of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would be leaving her post at the Pentagon to take up a senior executive position at Google.
Still, despite the growing amount of information that Google has over every aspect of the daily lives of its billion-plus unique monthly users, it has long avoided any serious scrutiny in the press. Initially sheltered by its “underdog” status in the fight against the tech giants like Apple and Microsoft, even the corporate press has been forced to cover the serious abuses that Google has inflicted on its users in recent years, as those abuses become more flagrant and less easily dismissible.
To the extent that mainstream news stories about Google even address these issues, it is inevitably in a throwaway quote toward the end of the article from someone who is dismissed as a “privacy advocate.” With information on the habits, thoughts, contacts, conversations, physical location, and even financial transactions of a sizable percentage of the population of the planet, however, it is not merely “privacy advocates” who are concerned about the information that the company handles and how it shares that data with governments. Indeed, for anyone who is familiar with the company, its background, its shareholders, or its executives’ personal philosophies, the questions of power that are inevitably raised by the staggering sums of data it holds on a growing percentage of the population are deeply troubling.
Like in so many other matters, however, what can never be mentioned is that the population does have a choice over how their information is used and collected. That information comes from choosing to use Google in the first place. There are plenty of alternative search engines that offer similar (if not identical) results to those offered by Google while simultaneously respecting users’ privacy and refusing to log IP addresses or other recognizable details of its users. There are alternative video sites, alternative email providers, and alternative browsers. By concentrating so much on Google, the press often makes it seem like there is no choice, and that we are all subject to the whims of this monolithic corporation and the whims of its executives as they roll out privacy changes by decree and conspire with government officials in secret.
Once again, it is up to the public to begin detaching themselves from this system and to stop feeding the Google behemoth with their data. By refusing to participate with the monopolization of the web, netizens can make it that much more difficult for their personal information to be bought, sold, or passed to greedy businessman or prying governments, and that much more difficult for videos like this one to be censored from the web.