Google and its Discontents

Google always makes plenty of headlines. The latest is their finding that government demand for Google user data is increasing, feeding into controversies surrounding Internet freedom. The number of government requests for data is, in Google’s own words, “troubling.” In its latest Transparency Report, Google claims that “the U.S. continues to make the most requests for user data, 7,969 in the first six months of the year. Google complied with 90% of these requests” (Claburn, 2012). While this figure is indeed troubling, Google’s characterization is a bit ironic. Google itself is often mired in significant controversy, and we must be mindful of that.

Recently, the FTC’s investigations of Google covers actions that could just as easily be characterized as troubling: “FTC investigators have been probing Google for ranking its own services higher than those of competitors, for signing exclusive agreements to provide search services to online publishers and for making it difficult for advertisers to compare data about campaigns running on rival sites by Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Bing” (Forden, 2012). The FTC has also been investigating “whether Mountain View, California-based Google is abusing its dominance of the Internet, and it’s prepared to sue if the operator of the world’s largest search engine fails to make an acceptable proposal” (Forden, 2012).

With all of this in mind, in returning to Google’s comments on user data requests, when exactly did Google become a cultural authority on topics like Internet freedom and surveillance? I find it interesting that in this case, Google, often the object of scandal, has been given the right to speak on an event that is related to the very controversies by which it is criticized.

Our relations as consumers with Google are incredibly complex. When Google announced its underwater Street View and released screenshots from it, I remember posting this article about it on Facebook almost immediately with an ironic comment: “No human or sea creature is immune to Street View.” This comment was meant to reference the controversy surrounding Google Street View capturing images of people within its images.

However, this was lost on my Facebook friends who happened to like, comment on, and share the article, and not for lack of the issue’s traction. In fact, it is the impetus of a larger online project entitled Street Ghosts that shows how artist Paolo Cirio has taken what Google does through Street View a step further. In describing the project, the website states that “life-sized pictures of people found on Google’s Street View are printed and posted without authorization at the same spot where they were taken.” In his artist’s statement on the website, Cirio even cites an article from last year which highlights Google’s decision not to expand their Street View services in Germany due to “objections from German privacy regulators” (Oates, 2011).

In all of this, it is strange that at times we forget about some of these controversies when it becomes more convenient to see Google as progressive, or, at least in the particular instance I started with, a whistleblower. This tendency is part of a vexed relationship we have with the company in that we often criticize Google over privacy issues yet many of us still play a huge role in its popularity. Due to this, there are two different views of the company that surface in our discussions of it – one favorable, the other critical. Whenever we hear something new about Google, it does not seem that we consider both views equally; it is either one or the other that we fall back on in judging the company’s latest move.

Works Cited

Claburn, T. (2012, Nov. 13). Google says government surveillance growing. InformationWeek Government. Retrieved from http://www.informationweek.com/government/policy/google-says-government-surveillance-grow/240124953.

Forden, S. (2012, Nov. 13). Google said to face ultimatum from FTC in antitrust talks. Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-12/google-said-to-face-ultimatum-from-ftc-in-antitrust-talks.html.

Oates, J. (2011, April 11). Google calls halt on German Street View. The Register. Retrieved from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/11/google_street_view_germany/.

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer is a former CCT Graduate Student.