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What Hood v. Google is and isn’t about

Sometimes even the brightest people get things wrong, and that’s exactly what’s happened when the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) came out in support of shutting down Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s fact-finding investigation of Google before it even starts.

Attorney General Hood is investigating whether Google helped criminals – illegal narcotics and steroids dealers, counterfeit peddlers, or content thieves – use its platforms to promote and sell their services. In a legal filing, CEA and CDT called on the judge reviewing the case to shut down the fact-finding inquiry. At issue is whether criminals merely used Google’s platforms without the company’s participation or Google actively helped bad actors – and profited from it.

{mosads}To CEA and CDT, Google could not have broken the law because it’s just a platform and the company is never responsible for what criminals do when they are using Google. But CEA and CDT seem to overlook that for years Google did cross the line: it actively helped overseas pharmacies illegally market prescription drugs into the United States. Google paid $500 million in 2011 to avoid prosecution in a case the prosecutor said included knowledge of the scheme among top company executives.

On what factual basis do CEA and CDT conclude that Google employees didn’t actively help others use the platform to circumvent laws? That is at the heart of the Mississippi inquiry. If Google didn’t actively help, then the federal law that exempts platforms from the illegal acts of others will apply. But if Google did help criminals, as it did in the prescription drug case, then the exemption that CEA and CDT cite is no longer applicable.

In the legal filing, CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro wrote, “The Internet is a powerful vehicle of free expression, and platforms like Google are among the most robust and innovative growth sectors of the U.S. economy…Their success is enabled in part by federal laws and court decisions that guarantee online platforms immunity from the conduct of their users.”

That is all true, but it doesn’t put Google, or any other company, above scrutiny. Just because Google’s platforms are robust and drive innovation doesn’t give it a free pass if, and I reiterate if, the company engaged in illegal activities.

Google’s allies suggest General Hood’s inquiry is an effort to make another run at resurrecting SOPA/PIPA efforts to combat piracy. I didn’t support the SOPA-PIPA legislation when it was being debated and haven’t changed my view. So, Google, CEA, CDT and the group I oversee, the Digital Citizens Alliance, are all on the same page about that legislation.

But unfortunately CEA and CDT have bought Google’s sales pitch that an attack on Google is somehow an attack on the Internet. The Internet is fine, but we’d all be better off if Google spent a bit more of its creative energy living up to it’s  “don’t be evil” credo.  Google’s report card on Internet safety is mixed. It gets an “A” for its work on child pornography. Unfortunately, it has mostly looked the other way when the drug peddlers moved over to YouTube and created videos to promote the sale of narcotics and steroids. And despite some improvements, Google search continues to be an easy way to find stolen content.

And in the end, that’s a growing problem for consumers. Digital Citizens’ research has found that visitors are at least four times more likely to get exposed to malware and other viruses on content theft sites as they are on other “vice” websites such as adult porn or gambling websites. Most lamentable, Google started off as a leader on malware. In 2006, it helped create, which was a neighborhood watch to flag websites that posed risks to Internet users.

Now, Google’s search results consistently highlight content theft websites that expose consumers to malware and computer viruses that can lead to identity theft, financial loss, or their computers being turned into “bots” for hackers.

This is ultimately about money. According to a Harvard professor, Google makes about a billion dollars a year in profits running ads on illegal or dangerous activities. Over the last two years, Digital Citizens has shown how Google profits from placing ads on YouTube videos for illegal prescription drugs and steroids, counterfeit passports, and even a search result for “find underage prostitute.”

That is why Digital Citizens supports Attorney General Hood’s efforts at fact-finding. We’ll be very comfortable if his inquiry ultimately finds that Google didn’t actively help criminals use its platform and therefore is exempt from prosecution. And we’ll be saddened if, like the drug case, they actively helped.  Because we need more “don’t be evil” when it comes to Internet safety. Hopefully CEA and CDT can agree to that.

Galvin is based in Washington, DC and has been active in Internet security and safety issues for over a decade. As executive director of Digital Citizens, he is focused on bringing a voice to consumers, including those who have been victimized online.



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