Facebook deserves Google’s company at the hearing table

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It is abundantly clear that how we view online platforms has changed dramatically in light of the 2016 election, the Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach, and many other transgressions almost too numerous to count. The notion of internet exceptionalism is quickly fading, and, along with it, the myth in which Silicon Valley exists to “make the world a better place.” The reality is quite different: The world’s most powerful internet companies, Google and Facebook, have become highly concentrated and frequently act against the public’s interests.

While Facebook’s activities have managed to capture the lion’s share of attention, there is another major player who is just as complicit in the practice of data-mining and monetizing customers while facilitating the weakening of our social fabric: Google.

In December, lawmakers summoned Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Capitol Hill for a hearing. It was a pivotal moment in what had been a slowly growing storm against Google since 2016, when bad actors began influencing voters en masse through strategically placed advertisements, fake news driven by leveraged search results, and algorithmic prioritization of YouTube videos. Google’s own tools were used to execute a sweeping misinformation campaign targeted at the people most vulnerable to it. It was an effort to influence an election – and yet, the search giant’s role in it all seemed to fly under the radar in comparison to Facebook’s more public misdeeds.

Stockpiled with more data and money than almost any company in history, Google is clearly a threat to consumer well-being – a for-profit surveillance apparatus larger than the economies of most countries in the developed world. They have the power to do great harm and what’s more, they already have – starting with their systematic weakening of copyright.

Since the dawn of their search engine and the beginning of YouTube, Google has built their wealth, in part, by relentlessly scraping copyrighted materials, serving up piracy sites through search, and monetizing copyright-infringing music, movies and television shows on YouTube. The creative industries send over 900 million DMCA takedown notices per year just to Google – pointing out pirated content within a system that leaves it up to creatives to police the platform for their own stolen content.

Thanks to Section 512 of the DMCA, Google is not liable for any of this activity so long as they respond to the takedown requests in a somewhat expeditious manner. Meanwhile, their advertising algorithms do not discriminate, earning the company revenue whether content is legal or not, whether it’s up for 10 hours or 10 years.

As a measure of how important such unscrupulous revenue streams are to Google’s bottom line, look no further than their aggressive attempts to protect themselves from any sort of liability.

Such behavior is par for the course for Google, who has spent years looking the other way when it comes to piracy, the illegal sex trade, massive online sales of illegal opioids, and political ads paid for by foreign actors – while simultaneously spending millions fighting every attempt to fix the laws that have allowed these crimes to continue.

The good news is that, with the Pichai hearing, it became clear that Google has finally been implicated in the harms occurring on their platform. Having made Pichai take the stand, U.S. lawmakers must now address how to stop these harms from occurring.

They could start by taking their cue from Europe, where ongoing investigations of Google for antitrust violations have been making headlines. In July 2018, Google was fined a €5.1 billion for violating European antitrust law, and in 2017, the European Union again fined Google €2.7 billion over manipulated search results. Then, a few months ago, in March 2019, the EU again fined Google an additional €1.7 billion for their advertising practices.

Unfortunately, a few billion euros here and there are pocket change to Google, but the fines still sent a powerful message that they can no longer just do whatever they want and get away with it. The December 2018 Pichai hearing in Washington was an opportunity to start demonstrating some of that same toughness here in the States. Hopefully, it was only the beginning.

The world has been answering to Google for long enough. Now it’s Google’s turn to give some answers.

Richard N. Gladstein is a two-time Academy Award® nominated film producer.

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