Gagging on Google

Google is to privacy and respect for intellectual property rights what the Taliban are to women’s rights and civil liberties: a daunting threat that must be fought relentlessly by all those who value privacy and the right to exercise, within the limits of the law, control over the uses made by others of their intellectual property.  The internet search engine company should be regulated rigorously, defanged and if necessary, broken up or put out of business.  It would not be missed.

In a nutshell, Google promotes copyright theft and voyeurism and lays the foundations for corporate or even official Big Brotherism.

Google, with about 50 per cent of the global internet search market, is the latest in a distinguished line of IT abusive monopolists.  The first was IBM, which was brought to heel partly by a forty-year long antitrust regulation (which ended in 1996) and partly by the rise of Microsoft.

Microsoft has been convicted of abuse of monopoly power on two continents, in the US as a result of a lawsuit launched by the US Federal Department of Justice and a fair number of States, and in the EU by the European Commission.  Unfortunately, by the time the US judicial system got to the point of deciding on remedies, the Bush administration was in office.  The Bush administration never saw a monopoly they did not like, so instead of the obvious remedy for the Microsoft problem – unbundling, that is, not permitting the same company to offer both the operating system and application programmes – they settled on a number of weak and rather easily circumvented limitations on Microsoft’s ability to abuse its market power.  Fortunately, the European Commission took over after the US Department of Justice was neutered and imposed further, albeit still limited and inadequate, legal constraints on Microsoft’s ability to act as an abusive monopolist.

I believe that the combination of the restraining influence of the US Department of Justice, assorted US States and the European Commission Competition Directorate, under the able leadership of Neelie Kroes, have succeeded in shackling the Microsoft Leviathan to a sufficient degree to allow the survival of Apple, various commercial implementations of Linux and the continued use of a number of varieties of Unix for servers and workstations.

But the Microsoft Leviathan has now been joined or even replaced by Google’s Godzilla as the main threat to the freedom of the internet, and now also a growing threat to key intellectual property rights, especially copyright, and privacy.

Copyright

Google has been making available copyrighted material for download on its websites for years (books through Google Books, music through YouTube, newspaper material through Google News), often without obtaining prior consent of the copyright holder and generally without making any payments to the copyright holders.  There is a word for that kind of behaviour: theft.  Just because you steal using internet technology does not make it anything other than theft.  As an author, this naturally concerns me.

Google Street View: the universal voyeur

Google Street View, an addition to Google Maps provides panorama images visible from street level in cities around the world.  The cameras record details of residents’ lives, including pictures of drunk people throwing up, people in intimate clinches with persons with whom they are not officially affiliated, small children playing in a yard, with or without adult supervision, etc. etc.  A wonderful database for voyeurs, peeping toms and would-be child molesters.

Users with objections can register complaints before images of their street are made public.  Thanks a lot. On April 23, 2009, the UK Information Commissioner ruled that Street View, does not breach the Data Protection Act.  This decision, while ludicrous, was not surprising, as it came from an official in a country where closed circuit TV cameras, public and private, already cover much of the public domain, and have brought the UK closer to Big Brother land than any other country, past or present, even without the added contribution of Google.  The Information Commissioner’s office also said that they would watch Google closely (perhaps using Street View?) to ensure that it responded quickly to requests for the removal of images that identified individuals.

Google and tracking cookies

Another way that Google (along with others, including Microsoft and Yahoo) invades our privacy is through the use of tracking cookies or ‘third-party persistent cookies’ to implement interest-based advertising (a.k.a behavioural targeting).  From Michael Horowicz’s illuminating article I cite the following:

Cookies are small, plain-text files that reside on your computer and are managed by a web browser. As web pages are downloaded to a computer, cookies typically come along for the ride. Likewise, as you make requests for new web pages, your web browser may upload a cookie as part of the web page request.

Cookies that come from the web page you are viewing (the one whose address is displayed by your web browser) are referred to as “first party” cookies. Those that come from other sources, be they ads on the web page or small independent pages (IFRAMES) included in what appears to you to be a single page, are “third party” cookies.

Cookies are used as the foundation of interest-based advertising (a.k.a behavioral targeting). This type of advertising recognizes things you care about and shows you ads that relate to your interests, even when you are viewing an unrelated web site.

For example, someone interested in dogs, will be shown dog related ads, even while reading news stories about financial topics.”

While Google, Yahoo and Microsoft each offer you a web page where you can opt-out of the tracking cookies, all three companies opt you in by default.  That is, in my view, wrong and unethical.  We know from endless examples (opting in vs. opting out for trade union memberships, opting in vs. opting out for occupational pension funds,) that the ‘framing’ of the choice makes a massive difference to the outcome.   When opting in is the default, 80 per cent or more of employees remain subscribed to the occupational pension fund.  When opting out is the the default, only 20 per cent may end up with a long term participation in the fund.  Clearly, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft should opt you out by default.

Search engines like those of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft can provide the companies that own and manage them with detailed information about many aspects of our lives, including our intimate, personal lives.  In the wrong hands that information could be used not only to put a commercial squeeze on people, but alto to extort and blackmail them.  Transferred to government hands they could provide much of the information required for a pretty effective and very nasty police state.

Can we trust Google not to abuse the information they collect?  Of course not.  This is a profit-seeking company.  Its owners, CEO and top managers are typical amoral capitalists who want to make as much money as they can without ending up in jail.  Their ruthless, unethical behaviour as regards copyright, Of course we cannot trust them.  They must be regulated and restrained by law so we can sleep at ease even though we know we cannot trust them.

A further problem is that even the act of opting out of the tracking cookies gambit results in one or more cookies being placed on your computer.  When opting out of tracking cookies results in more cookies, we clearly have a problem of trust.  As Michael Horowicz puts it “A cookie is just a plain-text file. The actions that happen based on the data in the cookie today could be different from the actions taken next week”. When the asymmetry in information and power between the individual and Google (or any other company in a similar position) is as extreme as it is in this case, and when the commercial and control incentives for abusing the information that can be collected through the cookies are as strong as they obviously are in this case, it is irresponsible to trust Google or any other company capable of tracking our internet actions.  They should not be trusted because they cannot be trusted.

Conclusion

When confronted with criticism of Google’s repeated assaults on copyright and privacy, Google CEO Eric Schmidt comes up with the most astonishing infantile defence.  It amounts to: if something can be done, it will be done and indeed ought to be done.  Well, no, actually.

We can run carefully controlled experiments on the response of newborn infants to long-term submersion in freezing water.  We don’t do this because it is considered cruel and inhuman.  We have even declared such act to be illegal.

We can deal with annoying little foreign countries by dropping H-bombs on their cities, killing most of their population and turning the country into a radio-active hell hole.  We chose not to do this because it offends our sense of proportion and its irreconcilability with any notion of a just war.  We can, easily and effortlessly do a great many things that we either voluntarily choose not to do, or that we are prevented from doing by law or other social constraints.

Google company’s founding motto is: ‘Don’t be evil.’  But it does evil.  It has indeed, become the new evil empire of the internet.  It is time for people to take a stand, as individual consumers and internet users, and collectively through laws and regulations, to tame this new Leviathan.  When I get back from this trip, I will do my best to remove every trace of Google from my computers, even the tracking cookies (if I can!).

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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