Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, told Google employees last week that the Trump administration is “going to do evil things as they have done in the immigration area and perhaps some others.” Schmidt is putting Google’s money where his mouth is by contributing $2 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and three other groups opposing Trump immigration policies.
It is ironic that a new Google policy that allows the company to collect even more information on users is getting far less attention. The new policy is only the latest evidence that Google, and sister companies like YouTube, represent an increasingly serious threat not only to personal privacy but also to civil liberties.
Privacy advocates have raised the alarm about the new policy that was launched in June under the guise of empowering users to see what information Google has on them, and if the user wishes, to delete it. Like the razor blade in the apple, however, the new policy allows Google to “combine users’ browsing data from third-party websites with the individuals’ Google search and email data,” as described in the January 25 Wall Street Journal.
These privacy activists deserve credit for raising red flags, but I am convinced that a deeper danger is at hand, and that most people do not appreciate it. The internet has become so ubiquitous, and facilitates so many facets of our lives that most people simply accept the fact that data is being continuously gathered on us, even if we don’t fully understand the scope or exactly how it is done.
If Google were simply a ubiquitous behemoth that profits by collecting and correlating data on us, and then selling it to others, this would indeed be a privacy issue. But Google’s use of the data has never been limited to making money. The company is accumulating massive amounts of information to be put at the service of political forces with which it is aligned.
The hacked Podesta emails confirm that Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt sought a central role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. One line from a Schmidt email to Hillary underling Cheryl Mills said it all, “Key is the development of a single record for a voter that aggregates all that is known about them.”
And when Google’s friends are back in power, what is to stop Google from aggregating all that is known about everyone to allow government the ability to reward friends and punish enemies? This is not far-fetched. The Chinese government’s is already using electronic “social profiles” in dispensing (and denying) public services.
Google’s possession of so much information gives it immense power, amplified by its wealth. Schmidt and the others seem to have some sense of this omnipotence, but no sense of the responsibility that comes with it.
Filling this void is political ideology. Google’s ideology is what is politely called progressivism, but is actually the politics of the college campus, where Google was born. It puts dogmatic adherence to a set of positions above all else, and brooks no dissent. The enforcement of this “political correctness” allows for a thoroughly respectable conservative like Dennis Prager to have his YouTube channel, called PragerU, censored by YouTube.
Prager’s videos attract millions and millions of viewers. In other words, Prager brings in millions of customers to YouTube. You would think he would be one of the company’s heroes. Instead, he is viewed with suspicion, a content provider who is to be monitored and controlled, lest he provide a conservative or libertarian vision that is too articulate. For Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, political enforcement comes before business.
This is a disservice to shareholders, but a bigger threat is brewing. When a private institution possesses government-like powers, there is an expectation that it adhere to the basic principles of fairness, and that it more or less treat people the same. Because Google does neither, it risks becoming the flash point of popular fear and anger when people revolt against how much Big Data intrudes in our lives.
It is not possible in advance to know what the tipping point will be, but it will come. Moreover, the misuse of Google’s data is not a question of if but when. Consider the players.
Eric Schmidt was famously photographed on election night sporting a “staff” badge at Hillary Clinton headquarters. It’s clear from the Podesta emails that he desperately wanted to be part of her inner circle.
In 1996, when she was First Lady, before the Internet got much use, there was a scandal called Filegate. Hillary hired a rough character from Arkansas named Craig Livingstone who requested and received hundreds of FBI files on political rivals. The raw files contained sensitive and unverified data, including information about extramarital affairs, run-ins with the law, and health problems. The disclosure was illegal, but no one was ever charged with a crime. The Clintons reacted with their usual dimissiveness. Bill Clinton called it a “completely honest bureaucratic snafu.”
It’s not hard to imagine what a future Filegate will look like.