After Facebook turn in hot seat, eyes turn toward Google
© iStock

While the dust has settled after Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Officials pressed on Russian interference at security forum | FCC accuses Sinclair of deception | Microsoft reveals Russia tried to hack three 2018 candidates | Trump backs Google in fight with EU | Comcast gives up on Fox bid Facebook's Zuckerberg congratulated Trump after 2016 election: report Facebook to start removing misleading posts that incite violence MORE’s sparring with members of Congress over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he probably shouldn’t celebrate just yet. What is clear is that there are many unanswered questions about why companies such as Facebook have so much data on Americans to begin with.

It’s a conversation that, as a society, we have to have. And if Washington really wants to safeguard Internet users from the power wielded by Internet platforms, it needs to do more than talk to Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
It also needs to hear from Google.

If Facebook perfected the model of monetizing consumers’ personal data and browsing habits, Google invented it. Consider the extremely wide range of ways that Google touches Americans: search, video, advertising, mobile, navigation, education, email and personal and always on, always recording home devices.

The company has a deeper reach into our lives than any other, allowing it to assemble incredibly detailed profiles of our individual habits and personal preferences. For proof, look at this web developer’s examination of the mass of information Google knows about him.

It’s not just the company’s data collection prowess that is receiving scrutiny: Google is also the primary gatekeeper to information and innovation online. Consumers must rely on it nearly every time they go online. For example, YouTube users watch more than a billion hours of video per day, and most of the time, Google readily admits, it’s driving the video choices of viewers.

It is almost unavoidable to have your data collected by the big platforms. But because of that they should be held to a higher standard regarding how and when they utilize that data.

That standard is what is at issue.

Zuckerberg acknowledged in his testimony before Congress that the company is “responsible for the content” on its platform. Will Google make the same declaration? Up until now, Google routinely paints itself as absolved of any responsibility for what people post and share on their services.

But given the rising concern about consumers about whether they can trust digital platforms, that message may no longer fly. Even former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-White House stenographer: Trump is ‘lying to the American people’ Trump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage MORE, one of Google’s staunchest backers, has indicated that platforms need to rethink their ways. “I do think the large platforms—Google and Facebook being the most obvious, Twitter and others as well, are part of that ecosystem—have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise,” he told MIT’s Sloan Sports Conference.

Digital platforms also must step up to make sure that they are not part of used, willingly or unwillingly, to distort the American political process. Facebook and Twitter recently committed to supporting the Honest Ads Act that imposes new political ad disclosure requirements on tech companies.

Will Google make the same commitment?

Given the crisis that platforms face, tinkering along the margins is not enough. Real changes, like opt-in requirements that require affirmative consent before Facebook and Google can serve you ads based on your data, should be considered. Without serious reforms, it’ll be the platforms themselves that suffer the consequences: A survey released by Digital Citizens found that trust in digital platforms decreased over the past year for more than 70 percent of respondents.

The core question is not whether digital platforms violated our privacy by giving out and profiting off of the details of our personal lives. They did and do – Google recently announced soaring first quarter profits and revenue. Or whether these platforms were used by malicious actors seeking to undermine civil society and democracy. They were and are.

The real question is whether the leaders of companies like Google and Facebook, who are reaping massive profits off a largely unregulated, ad-supported business model, can be trusted to behave in an ethical manner without any sort of government oversight.

Only they can answer that question.

Tom Galvin is Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance.