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Google Has a Facebook Problem

The tech giant has largely escaped scrutiny of late, but deserves a congressional grilling just as much as Mark Zuckerberg did.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In agreeing to a two-day marathon of testimony before the House and Senate earlier this month, Mark Zuckerberg set a new standard for the political accountability of Silicon Valley’s tech giants: If a company allows a massive breach in its users’ privacy, or the widespread violation of other important rights, the company’s leaders must explain themselves to Congress. If that’s the case, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki should book plane tickets to Washington at the earliest opportunity.

Late last week, CNN revealed that ads from over 300 companies “ran on YouTube channels promoting white nationalists, Nazis, pedophilia, conspiracy theories and North Korean propaganda.” Facebook, Amazon, and even the U.S. government supplied ads, without knowing exactly where the ads would appear. And because Google, which owns YouTube, allows content producers to monetize their videos, these extremist channels profited from hate and abuse.

Google has been struggling to keep advertisers away from hate speech for years. But because so much of the advertising is programmatic—automatically placed based on an algorithm—these problems keep cropping up. And since advertisers haven’t stopped advertising on YouTube, Google hasn’t faced any real consequences from the scandal.

But in a potentially bigger YouTube scandal, child advocacy groups alleged in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month that the site collects data on children under 13, in violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). After collecting this data, YouTube targets users with videos that sometimes feature violent or sexual themes. Some of the content appeared on YouTube Kids, a mobile app directly marketed to children.

Any data collection on children under 13, if true, would trigger large fines for Google. But the company has escaped scrutiny amid Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Zuckerberg hearings. YouTube’s abuses aren’t as directly related to Trump and the 2016 election, but they are just as indicative of the problems of mass data surveillance from ubiquitous digital platforms. The same questions being asked of Zuckerberg—whether his company is a monopoly that’s sacrificing privacy for profits—could be asked of Google’s top brass.

The Google empire mines data for the benefit of advertisers to a much more invasive degree than Facebook. Google collects data from 30-50 million major websites through Google Analytics, the most popular platform for measuring website performance. Through Google Search, Gmail, Google Chrome, and Gmail—which are also the most popular products in their respective categories—it knows what you’re looking for, whom you’re speaking to, what you’ve bought (or merely considered buying), and where you’ve been. It also knows where you’re going: Phones running on Android, the Google mobile operating that dominates Apple’s iOS in global market share, provides geo-location data to Google. Even if you don’t have a Google account, the company likely has a profile of you.

Some of the data harvesting scandals particular to Facebook are really attributable to Google. Facebook users who downloaded their data recently, to see what the social media site knew about them, found that it collected phone call and text message information—but only Android phones, not iPhones, enabled that data scrape.

In fact, Android allows any number of apps to pick up data without explaining how it might be used. I’m finding this out in real time, as the owner of a new Android phone. It continually requests turning on location monitoring, making Chrome the default browser, and accessing the camera and microphone through other apps. The iPhone issues similar prompts, but the Android goes further. It sends notifications after I’ve left a restaurant or store, urging me to take a picture or write a review.

Google has previously responded to criticism by promising that human reviewers, algorithmic monitoring, and community self-policing would fix any problems. But last week’s CNN report shows the virtual impossibility of such efforts for an empire of Google’s scale. Its business model, like Facebook’s, leads inevitably to abuse.

“The way to win in Silicon Valley is to capture human attention,” said Tristan Harris at a conference on digital platforms I attended last week. Harris is a former Google ethicist who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology, a coalition of former tech workers seeking to redesign the industry. He explained that YouTube essentially “plays chess against your mind,” hijacking your brain with a constant stream of distractions to get you to keep clicking. The more extreme the video, the more likely you keep watching, so the recommendations soon lead to the darkest corners of the Internet.

Nobody wants to disrupt that because it’s how everyone gets paid from advertising. “The business model is so obviously misaligned with this asymmetry of power between users and platforms,” Harris said.

The conference was put on by the University of Chicago, which has a checkered history of enabling concentrations of economic power. Last year, the keynote speaker, former appeals court judge Richard Posner, declared that antitrust law was dead. This year, even the most jaded, laissez-faire economist couldn’t deny that something has gone disturbingly wrong with Big Tech. The conversation has moved from whether monopolies were a problem at all to how to solve the monopoly problem in the fastest-moving part of the economy.

That isn’t limited to Facebook, though it has grabbed the headlines most recently. Google has as entrenched a power base as any tech company. Google staffers met with Obama administration officials around once a week for practically his entire presidency. The company spends millions on professors who publish friendly research into its practices. The expulsion of Google critics from a think tank the company funded has created what some writers have described as a chilling effect on speaking out. Even privacy groups, many of which get funding from Google, have been quiet amid public discomfort with Big Tech’s data policies.

That Google has built this fortress around itself is all the more reason it should be called to account. If Congress’ kids-glove treatment of Zuckerberg is any indication, testimony from Google’s execs won’t necessarily yield the answers that the public deserves. But it will put the company in its rightful place: at the center of the growing conversation about how to rein in America’s tech monopolies.