In 2001, a journalist named Bethany McLean posed a simple question in Fortune Magazine: “How exactly does Enron make its money?”
Neither company executives nor outside analysts could give her a simple answer. Her one question is now seen as the drip that opened the floodgates that drowned Enron. By 2006, the one-time Wall Street darling was closed, companies that enabled the fraud had failed, and executives were imprisoned. All this happened because Bethany McLean got the chance to ask a question.
There are a lot of questions about another company that has charmed everyone from Wall Street to Silicon Valley – Google. Unlike Enron, we know how Google makes it money. It’s from advertising – a perfectly legitimate business. What we don’t know is how much of that advertising revenue comes from pushing illegal, destructive, or unethical products. Things that no merchant would dare sell in a mall, much less from the trunk of car, without worrying about being arrested. We’re talking about steroids, stolen credit cards, and fake IDs. People want to know how Google gets away with doing this.
And these questions have been out there for some time. In 2008, Joseph Califano, the founder of Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, wrote to Google’s then Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt wanting to know if Google would “block all advertisements for controlled prescription drugs that do not come from licensed and certified online pharmacies”? As far as I’ve been able to find, there doesn’t appear to be any record that Schmidt ever publicly responded to Califano’s question.
In fact, what we have learned about Google’s business practices has come as a result of legal challenges. We learned that Google ignored US government warnings that it helped rogue online pharmacies place ads targeting American consumers because of a lawsuit. Rather than have Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and others testify in court, the company paid out $500 million dollars in a settlement with the Department of Justice. But Google shareholders weren’t satisfied and they took Google to court. This civil suit led to more revelations – including emails from a Google VP to Schmidt, Page, and Sergey Brin discussing the ads for the rogue pharmacies. In one email, the VP said: “We are the only player in our industry still accepting these ads.” You might have heard of that executive; it was Sheryl Sandberg, now the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has asked a lot of questions about Google. He’s one of several State Attorneys General that sent Google eight letters over the last two years. In one of those letters, attorneys general from 23 other states joined him in wanting the company to tell them how much money it made from YouTube videos pushing the above mentioned items, as well as stolen movies, music, and other creative content. They requested meetings. They’ve waited. They’ve been stonewalled repeatedly. Google has fought AG Hood and his colleagues at every turn.
General Hood wants to continue an investigation determining whether Google is facilitating illegal drug sales, human trafficking, and the stealing of intellectual property that reportedly have been seen on Google properties (like YouTube). If they are found to have continued engaging in harmful activities that led to the previously mentioned $500 million fine, they would again need to take responsibility and be held liable.
In response, Google has shown what can only be described as an ultimate display of chutzpah. The company has sued Hood, calling his actions “enormously burdensome” – or, in other words, a pain in the a--. Google’s actual suit claims that there is a federal law that trumps Hood’s legitimate questions about Google’s impact on the health and well-being of his state’s citizens.
Google has no problem sharing every scrap that can be found on me, my friends, my family, or anyone else who has even had their name appear in a document. So the company that has made a fortune on searches doesn’t want to be searched.
I believe that Google sees us all as click-bait. The music that I’ve done with my band, The Dead Kennedys, is no different to them than the videos for stolen credit cards, anabolic steroids, and fake IDs that are so prevalent on YouTube. The consumer advocacy group the Digital Citizens Alliance found dozens of videos for illegal and illicit activities, with advertisements running alongside them. Google really doesn’t care what’s on the search results, as long as the company can monetize it. But monetization makes them a partner in these businesses, legal or not, and makes a lie out of what safe harbor is supposed to be. Financing illegal activities in real life is considered racketeering, why the exception for Internet companies?
And as a society, we’re allowing Google to lower the bar on acceptable business standards. The company argues that holding them to a standard of decency is somehow a threat to “Internet freedom.” Look, I’ve been sued about lyrics in my music. I’m all for freedom of speech. Selling drugs to kids is NOT freedom of speech. Showing citizens how to skirt doctors to get pharmaceuticals is not a right guaranteed in the Constitution. It isn’t some unfortunate consequence of progress that these videos slip past Google. They know what’s there and they know people are watching – and the ads are being seen.
The only way we’re going to learn about what Google is doing is through legal challenges like that of AG Hood. I don’t see any Congressional hearings looking into Google’s practices (especially with Google spending almost $17 million on lobbying this past year). I don’t hear President Obama asking about Google (see previously mentioned $17 million). While there are European leaders and governments pushing Google to be more transparent, I don’t know why we’ve outsourced an investigation we ourselves should be doing. I worry that if Google can block a state’s top law enforcement officer from even asking questions, then who is there to stand up and search for the answers we clearly should be seeking?
East Bay Ray is the guitarist, co-founder and one of two main songwriters for the band Dead Kennedys. He has been speaking out on issues facing independent artists—on National Public Radio, at Chico State University, and on panels for SXSW, Association of Independent Music Publishers, California Lawyers for the Arts, SF Music Tech conferences, Hastings Law School and Boalt Hall Law School. Ray has also met with members of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. to advocate for artists’ rights.