THE BLOG

Why Google Should Be Regulated (Part 4)

11/05/2012 10:19 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Part 1 of this story can be viewed here.
Part 2 of this story can be viewed here.
Part 3 of this story can be viewed here.

Smoke, Mirrors, and the Inevitability of Google's Regulation

Google today is roughly where telephone companies were in the early 1900s: infusing itself into every aspect of our lives, unaccountable to anyone except its shareholders, occasionally trouncing on the liberties of individuals and organizations, and growing rapidly in power.

In the 1930s, the office and home phones of all of the members of U.S. Supreme Court were wiretapped, and phone company personnel were colluding with both criminals and government officials on a regular basis. Over time, in an attempt to protect civil liberties, our elected officials subjected the phone companies to increasing regulation. Some of the regulations favored monopolistic practices, and eventually, all phone traffic in the U.S. was in the hands of one highly regulated private company: AT&T. In the 1970s, AT&T's monopoly on telecommunications was successfully challenged in court by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the company was subsequently broken up into smaller ones--far more innovative but still highly regulated. People need to be protected, after all, from a private company that controls vast amounts of personal information.

If you've ever bought a house, or perhaps even a car, you might have learned firsthand about the importance of such protection. In the U.S., three private companies--Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax--collect information every day about most of your important financial transactions. They track how much credit you have with lenders and whether you make your credit card or mortgage payments on time, and the scores they compute for you determine what you can buy and how much interest you'll be charged. For more than 40 years now, these companies have been regulated under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which gives consumers easy and often free access to their credit reports, as well as straightforward methods for correcting errors on the reports. These companies still make lots of money, but they are highly constrained in what they can do.

An Unparalleled Threat to Our Civil Liberties

It's still early in the game, but Google, too, is heading down the road to regulation, because it puts our civil liberties at risk--far more so than do the credit bureaus or phone companies. The extent to which Google currently misuses its power is not the point; the point is that it has the power--currently unfettered--to exercise malice on a grand scale.

And even if we were all naive enough to give our absolute trust to the ultra-cool techies at Google, Inc., ask yourself this: What if all that info Google has collected ended up in the hands of people who were not so worthy of our trust? What if Google were hacked to its core? What if a high-ranking tech guru at Google sold out?

Google and the two other major companies (Microsoft and Yahoo) that together handle more than 95 percent of the world's online searches must ultimately be regulated, because information is power, and search engines have become the main way we access virtually all information. No private, unregulated company should have the kind of power Google has amassed. To leave power of this magnitude in the hands of corporate executives or, worse yet, inscrutable automated bots -- no matter how benign and well-meaning and snoogly-googly they claim to be -- would be imprudent, if not insane.

Smoke, Mirrors, and Advertising

Let's face it. Google is a business, not a charity. It cares more about the information it is collecting about you than it does about the information it provides for you. Except for its paid listings, the information Google provides costs the company money, whereas the information it collects is worth an astronomical sum. As Google executive James Whittaker said publicly after he quit the company, Google started out as a cool corporate anomaly but has quickly morphed into "an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus."

That focus is the manipulation of consumer behavior.

The more than one billion unique visitors who use Google's search engine every month don't see it that way, of course. As I'm sure Mr. Page would agree, that's the beauty of it.

As for the Street View scandal, does the world really need an archive of images of every street and building in the world? Of course not. The main purpose of the Street View vehicles was, in all likelihood -- and perhaps still is -- to collect information from private wireless networks. And if you think this sounds paranoid, bear in mind that, as a consultant to major corporations, I have sat in on marketing meetings where exactly these sorts of plans are hatched, after which people slap each other on the backs. How brilliant, after all, to have the public love the highly visible activity that completely obscures the objectionable, highly profitable one?

And why did Google develop its own browser (Chrome) and its own operating system (Android)? And why has Google been buying websites like YouTube?

Because they provide more information about consumer behavior -- not as much as the search engine provides, but enough to justify the expenditures.

As Mr. Whittaker reminded us, Google is an advertising company, not an information company, no matter what the smoke and mirrors tell us.

And this time it's personal. Google isn't just collecting information in the abstract, as advertisers have always done; it's collecting information about you - exactly as if it were listening in to all of your phone calls, peering in your windows to see which books and articles you read, watching you through hidden cameras to see which television shows you view, following you from shop to shop to track your purchases, and then transcribing all of this information and indexing it for later use.

That is what Google is doing to you in the digital world you inhabit much of the day, and if a bot or a person at Google thinks that what you are doing in that world is unacceptable -- employing criteria that are neither public nor transparent -- they can make your digital self disappear.

Would we, as a society, tolerate a private company that routinely monitored our behavior throughout our waking hours, collecting and cataloging information that it later used to influence our spending and that could, in principle, be used for even more nefarious purposes? Of course not. But that's exactly what we're allowing Google to do.

Why are we tolerating this?

Are we afraid -- afraid that if we irritate the 100-foot-tall digital monster, it will swat us aside like digital flies?

The sad truth is that if you're not afraid, you probably should be.

Nipping at Google's heels. That's what U.S. federal agencies and some foreign governments have been doing. But the issues they've looked at are trivial. It's time we all looked at the larger ones.

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.