Within a few years of Google’s 1998 launch, its name became a verb synonymous with searching the the web. It wasn’t just the world’s best search engine, full stop: It was the thing that connected us instantly to the stuff we needed. As the company just kept on introducing (or acquiring) a growing array of useful free services and other offerings—including Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs, and the Android mobile OS—people, for the most part, loved them, too.
But Google has grown up. And consumers have grown up, too. As the company marks its 20th anniversary today, our relationship with it isn’t quite as uncomplicated as it used to be.
In the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and fears that the Russians exploited Facebook and YouTube to influence the 2016 presidential election, people are more wary of tech companies these days–especially ones that harvest personal data. This trend won’t reverse itself anytime soon. Google, given the enormity of its presence in our lives, will bear that brunt more than almost anyone else.
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Over the years, consumers have grown more aware–in part because of Facebook’s privacy gaffes–that the reason those cool-and-free Google services exist is because of Google’s massive advertising business, which is fueled in large part by the personal information of users.
“Google has become a leader in surveillance capitalism, tracking our web usage in order to make money for itself and others, and has faced scrutiny and numerous fines for privacy violations,” said EFF legal director Corynne McSherry in a note to Fast Company.
Google started out by showing ads next to search results that were driven by the search key words. But it soon moved into placing ads for clients via a sprawling ad network on sites across the web and on mobile, and this placement too is driven by personal data.
It works. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, brought in $32.66 billion in revenue in Q2, and 86% of that was Google ad revenue. Online advertising space is a duopoly of two personal data harvesting giants: eMarketer projects that Google will take 37.1% of the total U.S. ad spend this year, with Facebook taking 20.6%.
“Over the last few years, people have come to understand Google’s broad reach in all areas of the digital world, and especially how it could impact people’s privacy,” says Creative Strategies president and longtime Valley analyst Tim Bajarin. “Now it is perceived as less trustworthy, and its credibility has come into question about the way its technology could be used for both good and evil.”
A game of trade-offs
Many consumers now rightly see using both Facebook and Google services as involving trade-offs. They balance the utility and necessity of the services against the personal information they must forfeit.
Facebook has won the job of poster child for the personal data harvesting business model, but perhaps only because of its fast growth and brash approach (“move fast and break things”), its ask-forgiveness-rather-than-permission attitude toward personal privacy, and its clumsiness in answering to the public and regulators about privacy abuses.
But Google has not been immune to the overall erosion of trust for big tech companies over the past several years. Back in 2016, Harris Polls had Google at No. 3 in its annual reputation rankings of the 100 most visible companies in the U.S. This year, Google’s reputation fell to a ranking of 28. However, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows Google falling only two points from 2016 to 2018 on a 100-point scale. The company had an average score of 81.6 in the years it was ranked, between 2002 and 2018.
A Recode/Survey Monkey survey in April this year found that 56% of people trust Facebook with their personal information the least of all the big tech companies. But another survey by The Verge and Reticle Research found that people see Google as being only slightly more transparent than Facebook about how it uses personal data for advertising.
Google’s privacy fouls haven’t felt as dramatic as Facebook’s, perhaps in part because it’s proved more skilled at responding, both in words and actions.
But from a pure surveillance and privacy point of view, we should look at Google through the same lens as Facebook. Google can actually collect a broader set of information on a user than Facebook can, reports the New York Times‘s Brian X. Chen, even though the Facebook data may be more personal, and hence more powerful for targeting many types of ads.
“Google has had a few run-ins where its innovations crossed the line from cool to creepy,” points out Theresa Payton, the White House CIO during the George W. Bush administration and current CEO of the security consulting company Fortalice Solutions. In 2010, she points out, Google’s Street View cars were caught eavesdropping on people’s Wi-Fi connections. In 2012, having found a workaround for the cookie-restricting policy on Apple’s Safari web browser, Google was hit with a lawsuit, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) levied a $22.5 million fine.
In 2012, Payton continues, Google combined and consolidated its many privacy policies into one all-encompassing policy. This simplified things, but it also enabled the company to personalize search results and target ads by tracking users across almost all of its services including Calendar, Docs, Gmail, search, and YouTube. This made some customers “feel betrayed that they were a means to an end for selling ads,” Payton says.
Payton says the recent news that Google has signed a deal with Mastercard, which will let it track and correlate people’s brick-and-mortar purchases with online purchases, also gave her pause.
On the other hand, Payton gives Google credit for responding to privacy concerns in some substantive ways, including providing consumers with tools to better understand what data has been collected on them, offering ways for consumers to delete personal data from Google servers, and options for shutting off some kinds of tracking.
Big company, big target
Google’s image troubles have been exacerbated in some ways by its sheer size. It’s become a huge target.
The company was slapped with a record $2.7 billion fine by European antitrust regulators in June 2017, after being accused of using its vast market power to shut potential competitors to its many services. Just a month ago, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) sent a letter to the FTC asking it to investigate Google for possible antitrust behavior in the U.S.
“Many legitimately wonder if it’s gotten so powerful that it will crowd out the emergence of alternatives—the next Googles who can change the world as much as Google has,” said the EFF’s McSherry.
Like Apple and other corporate behemoths, Google has been called out for tax avoidance. It’s been accused of being less than neutral in the way it tunes its algorithms to return search results. Advertisers have been frustrated by YouTube’s haphazard attempts to remove graphic, hateful, and otherwise toxic content from its video platform.
In 2010, Google received praise for its principled decision to pull out of China, an emerging consumer market of vast importance, rather than give in to government demands for censorship. Lately, however, the company has been criticized for apparently working on a plan to return to the market. The Intercept reported on August 1 that Google is working on a new search engine (under the code name Dragonfly) that would “blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.”
“Google’s own employees have concerns about where the company is headed next—such as considering moving into the Chinese market where it would be providing a censored service to an authoritarian regime,” McSherry said.
On Wednesday, Google’s privacy chief Keith Enright testified in front of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on potential privacy legislation, but the hearing veered to a conversation about China and Dragonfly. Things got a little testy. Enright was cagey, but he finally admitted, in a roundabout way, that the project does indeed exist. But he would say no more, insisting (per Wired) that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.” Google again came off as secretive and willing to say whatever is necessary to keep regulators out of its business.
This has been the tech industry’s main posture in Washington since forever, but it may not work much longer. Lawmakers have become aware of the privacy and antitrust risk built into Google’s massive size and reach. Europe and California have passed touch data privacy laws, and there’s pressure on lawmakers to pass some kind of privacy protections at the federal level. And this is happening as the country is still trying to figure out the extent to which foreign entities used several major tech platforms to influence the 2016 election.
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With its legions of lobbyists in D.C., does Google not get this? Judging by its recent appearances on the Hill, perhaps not. In early September, Google snubbed a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election interference by refusing to send Larry Page to testify alongside Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Google instead offered its top attorney Kent Walker, who is very capable, but whose face at the witness table cannot symbolize Google’s real concern about the issue and its respect for the government’s concern. So Page’s no-show put off some senators. The committee even left an empty chair for Google at the witness table to play up the snub.
“For Google to continue to grow, it will need to carefully deal with this credibility issue and work hard to convince governments and individuals that it will not betray people’s privacy, and be fair and equitable in the way they do business,” Bajarin said.
This is especially true when you consider the ways Google intends to grow. CEO Sundar Pichai often emphasizes that AI is at the heart of the company’s future. It’s already begun to infuse its existing products with AI, and is developing new ones, like its eerily human-sounding Duplex bot, that will do entirely new things and potentially play important roles in our lives. Given the anxiety we already have about where AI will land on the benevolent/dystopic scale in the future, Google will need all the trust it can get if it wants to matter as much in 2038–and beyond—as it does today.