While Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, twisted in the wind on Capitol Hill in front of puzzled preening politicians, other knowledgeable folks were asking how it was that Google is also not under the microscope? For the fact is that, at least for the present, the spotlight on Facebook has given Google a free ride. Question is, for how long? And will other companies be summoned and held to account for their privacy violations?
After all, the tech titan makes more money off its users than Facebook, gathers more of their data, and intrudes into parts of their lives like no other entity. Your browsing history, emails, movements, searches and myriad other information is available to Google and is therefore for sale. Many wonder what kind of “Cambridge Analytica moment” must happen before the focus shifts to what is arguably the more egregious privacy offender.
The possibility of Google ultimately becoming ensnared in the jaws of Congress is suggested by someone who loves the spotlight - especially since he is in a competitive election for his seat come November. Democrat Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said about the prospect:
"Absolutely. Because it's not just Facebook. (Zuckerberg) happens to be the point of the spear. But all these other apps and sites that get your personal data, that's another way of us losing our privacy."
Given that Google and Facebook dominate online marketing, that’s a safe bet in an election cycle where politicians of all stripes are stumbling over themselves for face-time in the media. But it also reflects the reality that Google is ubiquitous and its power pervasive. Google is not only the world's most popular search engine, but also owns smartphone operating system Android, web browser Chrome, video site YouTube and email service Gmail. It has its tentacles reaching into many parts of our lives every day and plays a huge role in tracking and profiling the everyday lives of billions around the world.
Downloading Facebook data from your profile may be revealing or even surprising. If that’s the case, doing the same with your Google data may be downright shocking. A privacy researcher for the non-profit think tank Cracked Labs, who writes about big data and digital rights said Google's reach is "often very invasive and (reveals) very sensitive information. Many people try to Google search what they wouldn't even tell their own partner."
As mentioned, Facebook is having its Cambridge Analytica moment, and it is made all the more dramatic because the 2016 election was won by a Republican. But Google was tarred by a similar brush, though not directly related to any one candidate. Still, its colossal advertising network was used by Russian sources to spread disinformation during the 2016 US election.
But it is Facebook, not Google, in the hot seat right now, though many feel that Google is equally culpable of abusing the privacy of its users. Google and Facebook account for about two-thirds of all US digital-ad revenue, and literally live to harvest data for ad income streams.
Scott Steinberg, the co-founder of Data Does Good, weighed in on the inconsistent treatment of the two tech goliaths, feeling that Google’s time may be coming.
"Google should be at the centre of the more holistic conversation about data regulation and ethics ... They have significantly more data, both in terms of quantity and sensitivity, than Facebook, Amazon and (major data broker) Acxiom combined," Steinberg said. "If the conversation becomes more about policy than about data breaches, which it's looking likely that it will, I expect that Google will gain more of the spotlight."
That Google hasn’t been under scrutiny sooner is a bit baffling given its pervasiveness. It builds a user's profile with data from all the sites that person uses. It can even divine your daily viewing habits and travel schedule from the haul it harvests, instead of just simple sharing of information among family and friends. With Google it’s all about utilizing the digital breadcrumbs we leave, which haunt us later as ads. In a sense, Facebook’s information is okay - but a lot is gossip. With Google, the user is demonstrating a concrete intent by his/her actions.
Google should be more of a target after it raised privacy advocates hackles last year when it said it would begin measuring the real-world performance of its online ads by working with undisclosed companies that had access to 70 percent of the credit-card and debit-card transactions in the US. That is potentially powerful penetration. Yet according to recent polling, Google is favored over Facebook in popularity by more than 50%.
Maybe it is just this popularity which has kept it from the prying eyes of Congress. But with the lawmakers' every move being made with an eye for the 2018 mid-term elections, Google is too juicy a target, and privacy too popular an issue for politicians to pass up. I’m betting that before long they won’t. What do you think?
Image credit: By ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.