Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing to examine the extent to which foreign actors manipulated digital platforms to meddle in the 2016 elections. To their credit, Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA) side-stepped the partisan wrangling and focused on how these bad actors attempted to undermine our democracy. And, for the first time, Senators Burr and Warner insisted the top executives from the big tech platforms testify in person. Given the dysfunctional state of the American political discourse, it’s especially remarkable that a group of Senators agreed to tackle an issue in a bipartisan fashion. Facebook agreed to send COO Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg already testified in the spring). Twitter sent its CEO, Jack Dorsey. Remarkably Google declined to send Alphabet CEO Larry Page.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why Google didn’t feel it needed to participate. Its dominant role in the distribution and monetization of content, through its search and advertising platforms respectively, certainly would have been relevant to the Committee’s work. And that is before you even get to YouTube, which helped make Russia Today its #2 news property through much of 2017 and spread of misinformation in Chemnitz last week. Google certainly has enough lobbyists on retainer to fully prepare. Whatever the reason, the fact that “declining” was even an option demonstrates just how big Google has become.
One area not well understood in Washington is the relationship between data collection and the incentives that allow foreign actors to manipulate them. Damian Collins, the Tory MP of UK Parliament, has led a brilliant multi-party effort to document its findings in this area. Other policy experts have also begun to explore how data protection may help curb disinformation.
Again, this is where Google’s role as the company that collects enormous amounts of data on the public needs to be more clearly explored. A few weeks ago, we distributed research entitled Google Data Collection, by Vanderbilt Professor Douglas Schmidt which, for the first time, cataloged the expansiveness of Google’s data collection machine. Google owns the #1 browser (Chrome), the #1 mobile platform (Android), and the #1 search engine (Google Search). On top of that, Google’s analytics and advertising tools are impossible for consumers or publishers to avoid. All of these touchpoints allow Google to conduct a massive surveillance operation on consumers who have no way to avoid it.
Professor Schmidt’s research shows that a dormant, stationary Android phone (with the Chrome browser active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period. That’s an average of 14 data communications per hour – with location information constituting 35% of all the data samples sent to Google.
When an iOS device was running Safari in the background, but not Chrome, Google could not collect any appreciable data unless a user was interacting with the device. Conversely, an idle Android phone running the Chrome browser sends back to Google nearly 50 times as many data requests per hour as an idle iOS phone running Safari.
Perhaps the most striking revelation in Professor Schmidt’s research is that approximately two-thirds of the data that Google collects about consumers is collected in passive ways. That’s an incredible amount of information being gathered in the background, where consumers wouldn’t expect it.
Google’s pervasive surveillance have enabled the company to rake in massive profits and squash competition in a variety of ways. However, there probably is no surer sign of their dominant position than their ability to decline – with no worry for the consequences – a bipartisan request to testify from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At the same time they declined to participate in this hearing, rumors began to circulate that Google is creating a search engine just for the Chinese market that will allow Communist leaders to block access to content they don’t like. Google appears to be a willing participant in the suppression of over 1 billion people.
Is it time to start asking whether Google has outgrown democracy?