Regulatory agencies have been nipping at Google's heels, but they need to go straight for the throat.
Google reminds me of Adam, the cute, 100-foot-tall toddler in the 1992 Rick Moranis film, Honey I Blew Up the Kid. In case you missed it, Adam keeps stumbling over buildings, mistakes real cars for toys, and ultimately threatens the existence of Las Vegas.
Adam -- the errant father of the human race.
Google -- the company named after an astronomically large number (1 with a hundred zeros after it) that controls access to most of the information on earth and that finds innovative ways to get in trouble several times a year.
Here are recent examples of Google's stumbles:
● In 2010, Google's Street View teams -- the mobile crews that are systematically filming every street and building in the world, including your home -- were accused of deliberately capturing people's names, telephone numbers, emails, text messages, passwords, search histories, and even online dating information as they drove from neighborhood to neighborhood in the U.S. and more than 30 other countries between 2006 and 2010. Google snatched the data from Wi-Fi networks. This is like what those nasty adults in the white van were doing when they drove around the neighborhood trying to find E.T., but on a larger scale. At first Google claimed, absurdly, that only one lone engineer at the company was aware of this activity, but a 2012 Federal Communications Commission investigation concluded that the knowledge was widespread. The FCC fined Google $25,000 for obstructing its probe, but that's about it. Extracting data from personal, unencrypted Wi-Fi networks does not violate current federal wiretapping laws. In 2011, the French government fined Google 100,000 euros for its Street View caper, and in the UK the investigation is ongoing.
● In February 2010, Google stunned privacy advocates by rolling out Buzz, a social networking service that automatically enrolled Google's 175 million Gmail users, instantly creating a "circle of friends" for each user based on who they emailed most often. The problem was that Google never asked its Gmail users whether they wanted to enroll -- and what was that again about who you emailed most often? Buzz was shut down after 18 months.
● In 2011, Google reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission regarding revelations about how it handled user search information. Google tracks everything you search for, you see, as well as every website you visit, including those porn sites your friend visited when he borrowed your laptop. The company denied it was using this information improperly, but FTC officials were not persuaded. As a result, the company reluctantly agreed to undergo regular privacy audits for the next 20 years. As you may have noticed, however, those highly targeted ads Google sends you based on your email content and Internet activities seem to be coming faster than ever.
● In 2011, after a successful sting operation by the state of Rhode Island on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, Google agreed to pay a whopping $500 million fine to the federal government for illegally marketing Canadian prescription medication to U.S. citizens through its AdWords program -- a ubiquitous advertising system that allows Google ads to appear on just about any website, just about anywhere -- even smack in the middle of an article on Mitt Romney or the Mars landing. Google had been on notice since 2003 that its ads violated U.S. law, but it continued to solicit and support them aggressively until at least 2009, supposedly generating upwards of $500 million in revenues.
● In early August 2012, the FTC levied a $22.5 million fine against Google for violating the privacy of people who used the Safari browser on Apple iPhones, iPads, and Macintoshes. Google bypassed Safari's rigorous privacy settings to track user activity and send users customized ads. Google's actions not only violated its agreements with Apple, they also violated yet again the terms of Google's settlement with the FTC. Google agreed to pay the fine but refused to admit that it had violated any laws. The company's defense? It was "unaware" that the privacy violations were occurring.
● At this writing (October 21, 2012), FTC commissioners are reviewing an internal 100-page memo proposing that the U.S. government bring an anti-trust action against Google for its unfair dominance of the Internet.
In response to various challenges to its high-handed conduct, Google recently launched an aggressive advertising campaign to try to shore up its image. The basic message: Google is an awesome company that provides awesome services to the world, unmatched by any other company.
The message is not entirely false, and that's the problem. No one wants to mess with something good -- in this case a hip, helpful company that includes in its mission statement the breathtaking assertion, "You can make money without doing evil." And the word "google" itself is so darn cute. What harm could such an extraordinary company do?
But as good as the company is at providing information, it should not and must not be allowed to conduct business as usual. It must and will eventually be regulated, just as the phone companies and credit bureaus are regulated. Fundamental civil liberties issues are at stake.
Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. The former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, he has published fifteen books, including a 2008 book on artificial intelligence called Parsing the Turing Test: Philosophical and Methodological Issues in the Quest for the Thinking Computer. You can view "United States of Google," a recently archived video discussion on this issue involving Dr. Epstein, Bianca Bosker (Senior Tech Editor at the Huffington Post), Pete Pachal (Tech Editor at Mashable.com), and others by visiting HuffPost Live here.
Follow Dr. Robert Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drrepstein