Since the United States Department of Justice formally charged Google with antitrust violations related to its search and advertising businesses in October 2020, the legal floodgates have opened in Google World. And the influx of actions challenging the company’s unfair business practices has accelerated, as you will read here – in our latest update to The Google Timeline of Scandal & Strife.
This time around, the White House itself is getting into the mix. Joe Biden has appointed not one but two outspoken critics of Big Tech monopolies to high-profile positions: Columbia University law professor Tim Wu to the National Economic Council as Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy; and Wu’s law school colleague, Lina Kahn, as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission. These moves hint that we are entering a bold new era of government enforcement against a company that has been spreading toxic content, helping foment hatred and division, and propping up widespread criminality for far too long.
Google has done these things because it can – because it has become so dominant (while Washington looked the other way for years), and because no other companies have been able to challenge it with safer, more secure business models that don’t rely on permissionless data collection, rage-fueling content, and stolen creative works for profits. But the events below – packed with lawsuits, proposed privacy laws, and deep dives into Google’s corrupt practices by determined journalists – hint that an end to its reign of terror may finally be on the horizon.
Until then, we will just keep documenting the bad stuff as we see it, so that we may never forget what we allowed Google to do… to all of us.
March 5, 2021
New administration, new focus on breaking up Big Tech? That certainly seems to be the message Joe Biden is sending today when he names Tim Wu to the National Economic Council as Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy. The Columbia University law professor has a long track record of being one of Big Tech’s most outspoken critics. In his book, The Curse of Bigness, he wrote that the great power of tech platforms like Google “yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding the appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership.” Sounds like someone who, like us, is ready to fix it.
March 16, 2021
Today, US District Judge Lucy Koh rules that a class-action lawsuit against Google over its “Incognito” search mode may move forward. The lawsuit, reports Ars Technica, contends that Chrome’s private browsing feature “should also stop Google’s server-side tracking and that Google’s failure to cease such tracking violates federal wiretap laws.” Seeing as how the suit seeks at least $5 billion in damages – or $5,000 per violation for millions of users – Google was eager to have it thrown out, but to no avail. “The court concludes that Google did not notify users that Google engages in the alleged data collection while the user is in private browsing mode,” Judge Koh wrote.
March 12, 2021
We have previously covered George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute, a Big Tech-funded think tank that – contrary to its grand-sounding title – is devoted to convincing regulators to back off on enforcing antitrust law against deserving companies such as Google. Today, a report from the Tech Transparency Project exposes just how far the group’s claws extend: deep into the Federal Trade Commission itself with an “extensive revolving door and internship pipeline.” At the top of the chain sits the GAI’s founder, former FTC commissioner Joshua Wright, who frequently organizes Big Tech-friendly white papers and conferences courtesy of GMU’s law school. But TTP’s investigation also sheds light on “more than 80 examples of FTC officials, GMU professors and law students who have moved between the school and the agency or vice versa.” The FTC, the report grimly concludes, “has effectively been captured by the very companies it is charged with overseeing.”
March 15, 2021
“If we can find it, they can find it,” Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) executive director Tom Galvin tells the Washington Post today, following a DCA report that details how YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram promote drug sales. “That begs the question how hard [enforcers are] looking.” Considering that some of these accounts peddling steroids, opioids, and other drugs reach “thousands of followers or viewers,” according to The Post, and that tens of thousands of Americans continue to die each year from the opioid epidemic, they could probably be looking a whole lot harder.
March 16, 2021
A Texas-led Google antitrust lawsuit gathers steam today as attorneys general from four more states and Puerto Rico join the charge, “bringing the total number of plaintiffs to 15 states and territories,” writes The Hill. It’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the different antitrust suits facing Google at this point. This particular one is focused on the search giant’s stifling of competition in the ad-tech market through schemes such as limiting third-party cookies in the Chrome browser – which essentially allows businesses other than Google to track people online. Clearly, Google wants its immensely profitable privacy invasion all to itself, and that is just not going to fly in the Alamo State.
May 21, 2021
Today, with the reintroduction of a Bill called the Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Act, Senator Amy Klobuchar and a bipartisan trio of colleagues take aim at Big Tech’s soft spot – its pocketbook. If made law, the legislation would force websites such as Google and YouTube to grant users greater control over their data and allow them to opt out of data tracking and collection. Google doesn’t want this, because its control of data is essential to its appeal to advertisers, which translates to tens of billions of dollars in ad revenue every year. But people who use the platform, said co-sponsor Senator John Kennedy in a statement, “have a right to data privacy, and that right does not evaporate when someone logs on to their social media profile.”
March 22, 2021
Earlier this month, the Joe Biden administration named Tim Wu, Columbia University professor and outspoken advocate for breaking up Big Tech, to his Economic Council. Today, Biden appoints another big fan of breaking up Big Tech to an even bigger position in government, announcing his intent to nominate Lina Kahn for a seat on the Federal Trade Commission. A peer of Wu’s at Columbia University, Kahn is what publications like The Verge call a “tech antitrust pioneer” and a clear signal that the Biden administration “is preparing to take on some of the tech industry’s most powerful and influential companies.” In June, Kahn will go on to be named Chair of the FTC – putting her in a position to influence policies, rulemakings, and enforcement actions at an agency with authority to administer antitrust and consumer protection laws.
April 1, 2021
Today, Axios reports on the dwindling power of Big Tech’s ability to woo lawmakers via financial contributions from its seemingly bottomless coffers. “The once lionized industry finds itself more and more cast as a pariah,” Axios writes, noting how comparisons have been drawn between Big Tech and Big Tobacco during recent Congressional hearings, as well as a “key House Republican forswearing industry donations.” Of course, plenty of money is still flowing to Capitol Hill from behemoths like Google intent on preserving their outsized internet dominance, but politicians and interest groups have, with increasing frequency, started viewing such donations as toxic. “People just do not trust these companies,” one source told Axios, “and do not think they’re good actors”. Huh, sounds like someone who’s been reading “Scandal and Strife”!
April 5, 2021
A big legal win for Google is a big loss for copyright owners in the software space today as the Supreme Court culminates more than 10 years of fierce litigation by holding that when Google copied 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE API to help create its Android operating system worth billions of dollars, it was a fair use. The details of this case are massively complex, but IP Watchdog offers a succinct summary of the ramifications when it describes the verdict as “an opinion that makes it difficult to imagine any circumstance in which declaring code will remain protected by copyright.” What’s more, as the copyright blogger David Newhoff writes, the message sent to future software developers is that “when a Google-scale behemoth appropriates some amount of their code, they may be about a decade’s worth of litigation away from finding out if there’s a remedy. And the number of new ventures that can afford that is zero.”
April 6, 2021
Today, Google’s YouTube releases data showing that 0.16% to 0.18% of all the video views on its platform during the fourth quarter of 2020 broke its rules against hate speech, disinformation, and other banned content. That’s “down 70 percent from the same period in 2017, the year the company began tracking it,” reports The Washington Post. The bad news? More than a billion hours of video are watched on YouTube each day. Which means that even 0.16% amounts to potentially millions of views of ruinous, toxic, democracy-threatening content each day. So, Google – what about the millions?
April 7, 2021
Today, Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems files a complaint against Google in France alleging that the search giant is illegally tracking Android phone users, urging an investigation into the company’s tracking practices, and arguing fines should be imposed if wrongdoing is found. The filing is noteworthy because, a) Schrems has singlehandedly moved the needle on landmark cases involving large-scale privacy violations before, and b) France’s “legal system is well suited to handling complaints under the European ePrivacy directive,” reports Ars Technica. Google has more than 300 million Android users in Europe, so this could be big if it takes off.
April 8, 2021
Today, The Markup publishes a deep dive into the dark, murky world of Google Ads, where advertisers can find all sorts of sneaky ways to “build… ad campaigns around hate terms”. To begin, Google’s hate-related keyword filter seems to have trouble remaining current; while it successfully blocked The Markup’s attempt to advertise on videos containing terms like “KKK,” it whiffed entirely by failing to block terms such as “white power”. What’s more, the blocks Google did implement “were weak,” the story continues. “They did not account for simple workarounds, such as pluralizing a singular word, changing a suffix, or removing spaces between words.” Don’t think it matters? “‘Aryan nation,’ ‘globalist Jews,’ ‘White pride,’ ‘White pill,’ and ‘White genocide’ were all blocked from advertisers as two words, but together resulted in hundreds of thousands of video recommendations once we removed the spaces between the words,” writes The Markup.
April 11, 2021
Today, The Wall Street Journal reports on “Project Bernanke,” a secret program within Google that “used data from past bids in the company’s digital advertising exchange to allegedly give its own ad-buying system an advantage over competitors.” The program was not disclosed to publishers who sold ads through Google’s ad-buying systems. This scam is now at the crux of a Texas-led antitrust lawsuit focused on the company’s stifling of competition in the ad-tech market. Google’s use of the bidding data, Texas alleges, amounted to a kind of insider trading within digital ad markets. Has a smoking gun been fired amidst the numerous antitrust lawsuits currently going against Google? Kind of feels like it…
April 16, 2021
Australia continues its successful run of pushing back against Big Tech behemoths today, as a federal judge rules that Google misled users about personal location data collected through Android devices. It turns out that when users created a new account during initial setup of their new device, Google implied that the “Location History” setting was the only one that affected “whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location,” reports the Associated Press. But no! There was another, undisclosed setting that also granted Google the power to collect, “Web & App Activity,” and this was “turned on by default.” It’s sketchy maneuvers like that one that have led Australia’s competition watchdog to prosecute Google over alleged breaches of consumer law since October 2019.
April 16, 2021
“Why Do We Let Corporations Profit From Rape Videos?” begins an op-ed in today’s New York Times, honing in, with startling immediacy, on one of the most disturbing aspects of Big Tech’s deregulated dystopia: the prevalence of online pornography featuring non-consenting adults and minors. And Google, with its search tools that point people directly toward such atrocities, “is a pillar of this sleazy ecosystem”. Take the sites XVideos and XNXX – two porn platforms notorious for guiding viewers toward, among other terrible things, sexual videos “that purport to show children”. Roughly half the traffic reaching these abhorrent videos, the article continues, “appear to come from Google searches.” We will just have to leave it at that as there are no real words left to describe the utter shamelessness of this company.
April 20, 2021
A lawsuit against Facebook filed by a West Virginia news publisher back in February is the catalyst its owner, Doug Reynolds, had hoped for. Today, 125 newspapers in 11 states announce lawsuits against both Facebook and Google for having “unlawfully monopolized the digital advertising market and engaged in an illegal secretive deal, nicknamed ‘Jedi Blue,’ to thwart competition.” Newspaper advertising revenue plunged from $49 billion in 2006 to $16.5 billion in 2017, despite surging growth in traffic to online news outlets. “The freedom of the press is not at stake,” the complaints state, “the press itself is at stake.”
April 20, 2021
Another day, another news publisher suing Google for unfair business practices. Today’s lawsuit comes from the owner of the UK’s Daily Mail, who alleges “the tech giant manipulates search results and advertising auctions in ways that harm online publishers,” reports The Wall Street Journal. Citing the way its coverage of the Royal Family has been played down in Google search results in 2021, the celebrity and pop-culture news outlet hopes to force Google to “discontinue its alleged misconduct and offer transparency into its news-search algorithm”.
April 21, 2021
Today, Bloomberg revisits the contentious December 2020 exit of Google’s former top ethical AI researcher, Timnit Gebru, reporting that her dismissal followed at least two years of “previously unreported disputes over the way Google handles allegations of harassment, racism and sexism.” Hired to help push Google, and the technology industry at large, to develop artificial intelligence without harming marginalized groups, Gebru told Bloomberg that she “did not go into it thinking this is a great place,” citing other Google employees’ experiences with harassment, bullying, and other issues. During her tenure with Google, Gebru repeatedly approached her bosses with additional concerns, including the fact that one of their colleagues known to be accused of sexual harassment was placed in charge of a “significant new research initiative,” reports Bloomberg. Ultimately, Google also fired Gebru’s co-lead of the ethical AI research team, Margaret Mitchell. The two women have yet to be replaced, leaving their fellow researchers “wading in the doldrums of defeat.”
April 21, 2021
Google’s history of mistreating children adds another chapter today as two Members of Congress call for a Federal Trade Commission probe into the search giant’s app store over “recent studies that suggest apps that infringe on children’s privacy,” reports The Hill. In their joint letter, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Kathy Castor urge the FTC to “protect the interests of children” by investigating “whether the Google Play Store has engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that mislead parents and harm kids”. With young people online more than ever in the pandemic era, this is a very timely inquiry.
April 23, 2021
A Google lawsuit with creative industry ramifications surfaces today as a company called Business Casual Holdings LLC files a complaint against Google, and its parent Alphabet, for their “inadequate repeat-infringer policy as required by law,” reports Law Street Media. What this means is that Google has allegedly failed to meet a basic requirement for safe harbor protections under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – making a reasonable attempt to prevent pirates from continuously pirating even after being called out for it. The plaintiff argues that Google’s YouTube, in particular, “knowingly enables repeat infringers that exploit YouTube’s repeat-infringer policy to avoid termination by submitting frivolous counter notifications.” A win for Business Casual in this case could set a standard useful to all copyright holders harmed by Google’s piracy failings.
May 5, 2021
Today, Law.com reports on an “eye-opening” Google lawsuit filed by the owner of the world’s largest collection of Mexican and Latin American movies. The suit filed by Spanish producer Carlos Vasallo alleges that Google, and its subsidiary YouTube, purposefully promotes and exploits “the piracy of plaintiff’s movies on their video platform to generate traffic and revenue for defendants, without paying any licensing fees for the pirated movies.” Coming from a copyright holder with a catalog like Vasallo’s, the outcome of the suit could have major reverberations, including a challenge to other interpretations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which have often shielded internet companies from having to police piracy on their platforms. A “federal ruling in favor of Vasallo,” writes Law.com, could change that lamentable paradigm. In June, YouTube will go on to ask the court to dismiss the case entirely – just another notch in the belt of a company that has been ducking lawsuits for years.
May 13, 2021
The pandemic has made Big Tech a whole lot richer and a whole lot more powerful – but it has also made Americans a whole lot more skeptical of Big Tech. Today, an Axios/Harris brand reputation poll of the top 100 tech companies shows a notable “pandemic plunge” in the attitudes of our increasingly connected populace, “suggesting that people see [Big Tech’s] products as necessary evils,” writes Axios. Speaking of evil, Google took the biggest hit, tumbling from the top 25 in terms of reputability all the way down to 60th in the span of one year. Good thing Google has a thick pillow of shamelessness to soften the fall.
May 13, 2021
On the same day we learn about Google’s plummeting reputation, we get a stunning example of the kind of activity that causes the drop. The Markup reports on the search giant’s failure to curb ads from shady websites “that charge high premiums for what are otherwise free or inexpensive government services” – such as signing up for an employer ID number or changing an address through the U.S. Postal Service. It’s a cottage industry “that continues to use Google’s ad section, despite blatantly violating Google’s stated policies, and in some cases, the law,” The Markup continues. It seems that letting advertisers rip people off is one of many reasons why Google is losing users’ trust.
May 25, 2021
Is Google exploiting its market dominance in the way it handles data? Germany seems to think so. Today, the country’s antitrust watchdog launched an investigation into “whether the tech giant offers users enough choice in how it uses their data across the wide range of digital services it provides,” Reuters reports. Such services include search, YouTube, Maps, the entire Android smartphone operating system, Chrome, and… ugh, we’re getting depressed just listing all the ways Google is embedded into our lives and how little we really know about how it uses our data.
May 27, 2021
Past and current female employees of Google won a big legal victory today, when a gender-pay disparity lawsuit against the search giant was awarded class-action status by a San Francisco state judge. The women leading the suit claim that Google paid female employees approximately $16,794 less per year than their male counterparts, Bloomberg reports, and violated California’s Unfair Competition Law by asking job candidates for prior salaries, “perpetuating lower pay and seniority for women.” For its part, Google told Bloomberg it makes “upward adjustments to remove them before new compensation goes into effect.” Nearly 11,000 women feel otherwise, and the plaintiffs representing them now have a chance to seek more than $600 million in damages.
June 1, 2021
It’s one thing to have a spirited, well-researched, good-faith dialogue about COVID vaccinations and their impact on public health. It’s quite another to spread lies and conspiracy theories to millions of people and profit from them. By now, we don’t need to tell you which path YouTube is on – after all, disinformation, hate speech, piracy, and other toxic content helps to fuel “engagement.”. Today, a report from the Tech Transparency Project reveals “numerous YouTube videos making baseless allegations that COVID-19 vaccines have been linked to deaths and miscarriage, contain fetal byproducts, or can cause transmissible health risks.” YouTube promised to curb such material back in October 2020 but has not followed through. Why? It probably has something to do with the fact that “[s]ome of the videos even ran with ads,” the report continues, “allowing purveyors of vaccine misinformation—and YouTube owner Google—to make money off these lies.”
June 2, 2021
In December of last year, Google fired one of its star AI ethics researchers, Timnit Gebru, who claimed the dismissal was over an academic paper she had written scrutinizing one of the company’s products. In the controversy that ensued, Google vowed to support and fund more ethical AI projects. Six months later, Gebru’s former coworkers claim it has a long way to go. The 10-person ethical AI group tells Recode today that “Google has yet to hire replacements for the two former leaders of the team” and that “the team has been in a state of limbo for months.” In command of a broader AI research department that is thousands of workers strong, Google clearly has the resources to get the ethical branch thriving again. Then again, the ethical team has a reputation for revealing issues in “algorithmic fairness and bias in the data sets that train AI models,” Recode reports.
June 7, 2021
Google is no stranger to settling cases against it. It’s much easier, after all, for the company to dip into its immense cash reserves and pay litigators to go away than it is to, say, actually fix the problems being litigated. But today’s relatively skimpy (for Google) settlement with the French competition authority comes with an interesting wrinkle – an actual fix to the problem. Fined for abusing its dominant position in the online advertising space, Google also agrees “to make it easier for competitors to use its online advertising tools,” writes The Hollywood Reporter. “The commitments under the settlement are only binding in France but… they could become a template for how Google resolves similar cases in other countries.” To which we can only say, once again: vive la France!
June 11, 2021
Today, House lawmakers push the Big Tech antitrust pedal to the metal, unveiling a raft of new Bills aimed at reining in anticompetitive practices by the likes of Facebook and Google. Collectively called “A Stronger Online Economy: Opportunity, Innovation, and Choice,” the Bills’ goals range from trimming internet companies’ penchant for favoring their own products over rivals’, to limiting mergers and acquisitions that let them preserve their dominance by gobbling up potential competitors before they ever reach scale. It all adds up to a potential gut punch to unregulated tech monopolies’ unique ability to “pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers, and put folks out of work,” in the words of Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline.
June 21, 2021
Today, The New York Times delivers a message from a consultant for the legal team in the Texas Attorney General’s antitrust suit against Google: The search giant has a monopoly on the digital-ad marketplace and it is harming businesses. There is no authority that “polices online advertising, turning it into an opaque space rife with conflicts of interest”, writes Dina Srinivasan, a former ad-technology company head. “Google has been able to corner much of the ad market and keep trading costs high for websites, apps and advertisers.” Her essay proceeds to lay out how Google “self-deals,” acting as a kind of double agent that helps both the websites selling ad spaces on exchanges and the advertisers purchasing those spaces. “You’d be rightfully worried… if your real estate agent was also representing the seller”, writes Srinivasan.
Cleaning Up the Mess
As the May 13 Axios/Harris poll proves, Google is losing the trust of its users, and losing it fast. Could it be the case that the company, its once-unassailable reputation tarnished, finally makes the systemic changes needed to right this sinking ship?
We will believe it when we see it.
Look at the years-long, staggering volume of wrongdoings laid out on this timeline. The countless harms Google has inflicted, and the pathological inability to address these harms in any meaningful way.
This mayhem is the direct result of specific choices made by a company who values growth and profitability over the well-being of its users. Google won’t change its ways because Google can’t change its ways. It has, as The New York Times recently wrote, a “cynicism” toward its own customers, choosing “to opt customers in to data collection schemes,” drawing up “dense terms of service policies that give users little recourse but to accept”, and seeking “to trick users through crafty design elements.”
And, “when they don’t like the laws that customers’ chosen elected representatives pass,” the Times continues, “they’ve shown they’re willing to spend hundreds of millions to overturn them.”
This blithe disregard for consumers’ desires is the inevitable result of decades of permissive or nonexistent government oversight, but that era seems to be coming to an end. We the people, and our elected leaders, need to work to end it faster. Sen. Klobuchar’s Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Act is a step in the right direction. Our elected officials are finally as fed up as we are, and the window to structurally change Big Tech for the better has never been so wide open.
We encourage you to reach out to our leaders in Congress and let them know that reining in Google and holding it accountable must be a priority going forward. Let’s keep the pressure on.
Google will not clean up the pieces of our society they shattered. It’s up to us to put things back together.