Despite having climbed its way up to the world stage and securing its dominance with erudite business moves, Google’s track record is far from pristine. Aside from its many failed “experiments” and seemingly praiseworthy ventures into the technological unknown, the company’s history is riddled with controversies that were left in the wake of its meteoric rise. In order to remain vigilant users of the indispensable internet, we should look at every dimension of an entity that is especially dominating. So, exploring its many blunders shouldn’t hurt.
Being one of the first in its class to rise in popularity amidst the dotcom bubble, controversies surrounding the company inevitably developed. Among the many issues raised against Google were censorship, privacy infringement concerns, copyright controversies, and tax avoidance allegations.
Google Street Cars Weren’t What They Seemed
Back in 2010, Google Street View received significant backlash because it was alleged to have been collecting information other than just pictures of its street cars’ surroundings. Google had been knowingly snooping the WiFi network information of places the cars passed that had not been secured with passwords, collecting sample payload data such as personal information. Google previously acknowledged in a blog post that the code for snooping existed, but the information was yet to be deleted until the government finished its investigation. The company was later fined $7M for WiFi snooping, which campaigners decried since Google can make up for the cost in an hour.
A number of countries accused Google of avoiding the payment of billions in taxes by using an elaborate plan that involved funds transfers to tax havens. In the UK, the company was shown to have contrived artificial distinctions to avoid paying corporation tax by the billions. This unethical scheme prompted the UK to pass a law that penalized Google and other multinational giants for artificial tax evasion. On 23rd of January 2016, Google agreed to pay £130M to the UK government. Among other sleazy tax evasion moves was income shifting that reduced its overseas tax rate to 2.4 percent, making it one of the lowest-paying U.S. tech company in its class by market capitalization.
In the bid to create a vast library of millions of digital books to be read in its search engine, Google was criticized for copyright infringement. The Google Print service (now Google Books) was accused by a couple of publishing groups to claim “a sweeping right to appropriate the property of others for its own commercial use unless it is told, case by case and instance by instance, not to”.
In 2010, complaints were filed by Gmail users against Google for illicitly scanning and analyzing emails in order to sell advertisements back to the users. Google’s defense was that the users and the people they connect with had consented to having their emails read for these purposes, an argument that was rejected by the courts. The technology used to scan the emails was the same which protected users from spam and viruses, but it was held that Google never informed Gmail users that the company would create personal profiles and target them with ads. Non-Gmail users who were also targeted did not agree to let Google collect and parse their messages, so the motion to dismiss the case was denied. The case is still currently ongoing.
The last thirteen years brought many censorship complaints to Google and its AdSense/AdWords arm. In 2003, Google removed advertisements for Oceana, which is an NGO advocating against major cruise ship sewage treatment practices. During that time, Google’s policy stated that it does not accept advertising for advocates against other individuals, groups, or organizations, but was later changed.
A UK Christian group sued Google in 2008 for refusing to run ads for it. Google had stated that their policy does not permit ads for websites that contain abortion and religion-related content. The discrimination suit made Google revoke its statement and allowed for the ads.
An Ireland sex-worker political group also had their AdWord advertisement purchase refused because they “egregiously violated” the company’s ad policy for selling adult sexual services. Google relented after the political group protested that they were a non-profit organization and restored their AdWord advertisement.
The most recent drama surrounding Google involves the ubiquitous streaming site YouTube and its monetization policies. The site recently changed its content moderation system, which left a sweeping effect on the site’s crucial content creators. Many popular channels, including the notable Vlogbrothers and Philip DeFranco posted their grievances on Twitter, showing their uploads that have been flagged as violating YouTube’s policies and consequently had their advertising privileges removed.
YouTube’s guidelines for making content “advertiser-friendly” prohibits profanity, promoting drugs, violence, display of serious injury, sexually suggestive material, and controversial or sensitive subjects and events, among other things. You can see how these terms are widely encompassing and with the recent change in moderation, many creators can expect to have their videos flagged.
A slew of social media ravings promptly ensued, proclaiming the end of YouTube. The site commented on an interview with Kotaku that there were no policy changes, only that the notification process has been improved and allowed creators to appeal for their flagged videos to be monetized again. As YouTube and Google continue to automate their moderation process, their methods raise concerns of their apparatus being overzealous, sweeping, and ultimately troublesome. Users’ mileages may vary, however. Vlogbrothers have posted that monetization has been restored to one of their two flagged videos titled “Zaatari: thoughts from a refugee camp.” shortly after they complained. For now, it’s simply evidence of badly-understood and ill-implemented policies the improvement of which are annoying the site’s most valuable commodity: content creators.
With the company’s shift to a format akin to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, Google is now part of a conglomerate called Alphabet, which controls all the arms that used to be dubbed Google’s “side projects”. Though we can’t really feel last year’s reorganization as consumers, we can infer from recent developments that things aren’t going too splendidly for some of Google’s recent projects.
RIP Project Ara
Lots of hype surrounded Google’s concept for true modular smartphones and its May Google I/O announcement revealed that they were on their way to presenting us with an early prototype. And then they abruptly suspended the project until further notice last month. While the project was certainly a leap into the unknown despite the new Motorola’s own attempt at modular, the news was still surprising, leaving followers hanging as to the future’s build-it-yourself phones.
While it’s a simple rebrand, the new Pixel phones that would replace the well-loved Nexus handsets were met with polarizing receptions. The name “Pixel” is reserved for Google’s very own hardware, and it remains to be seen if the new Pixel phones can compete with existing giants in a rather stagnant market.
Death of the Chromebook Pixel
Previously mentioned was the exclusivity of the Pixel name, but exclusive doesn’t always mean lucrative. The company’s flagship Chromebook Pixel 2 has been discontinued with a follow-up yet to be announced.
In the weeks preceding the app’s official launch, there had been palpable anticipation for Allo. The messaging/chat that was supposedly going to replace Hangouts and was aimed to appeal to users with its Google Search Assistant integration. It’s too early to tell, but skeptics are already declaring AI integration is just too creepy, not to mention competing in an oversaturated market of other free messaging apps that do many of the same tasks.
Glass was seen as ahead of its time, and despite the seemingly unstoppable hype train that charged through the interwebs, it proved to be a doomed project. While Google hasn’t officially quit on the concept, there has been no recent active development for the device as far as we can tell. Google did file some patents that hint at a follow-up, but we can chalk it up to one of their expensive experiments for now.
What did you think about Google Glass? Was it shelved too early? Opinions on the newest Pixel phones or other Google projects are welcome in the comments section below!