Google on Your Shoulder

Article by Robert Epstein, Ph.D.

In July 2019, I testified before the U.S. Congress about such issues, and I also explained how Congress could act to constrain Big Tech. The day before my testimony, I published an article in Bloomberg Businessweek explaining how U.S. or European authorities could quickly and permanently end Google’s worldwide monopoly on search and how doing so would make search competitive and innovative again — like it was before Google destroyed all its competitors.

More than a year has passed since then. Has anything changed?

Since 2017, the European Union has fined Google more than 10 billion euros for violating European antitrust laws, and last year the U.S. government fined Facebook $5 billion for failing to protect user privacy. On May 25, 2018, the EU’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect, supposedly to protect EU citizens from possible abuses of personal data by tech companies.

Has anything changed?

There have been changes, but they’re all in the wrong direction. Both the revenues and the user bases of Google and Facebook have increased dramatically. When I first began calling for Google’s regulation in 2012, its annual revenue was $50 billion. Since then, the company’s revenue has grown at an increasing rate each year, with no slowdown in sight. In 2018, it raked in $136.4 billion, and in 2019, an incredible $160.7 billion.

Its power and reach have also grown. Last year, Google dramatically increased its ability to monitor the health data of millions of people by purchasing Fitbit, and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has further increased its access to health information because of its new partnerships with government health agencies worldwide.

As for that pioneering GDPR, its main effect has been to increase the power of both Facebook and Google in Europe by discouraging startups from entering the tech marketplace. Startups can’t afford to comply with all the GDPR paperwork — only the giants can. Has the GDPR at least protected user data in Europe? Not at all. Google and Facebook are collecting more data than ever; they’re just being more careful about revealing what data they have and how they use it.

Doesn’t Google at least delete the data of EU citizens when they ask it to? Absolutely not. That would be like King Midas flushing gold down the toilet. Google invented the surveillance business model, which has now been adopted in varying degrees by thousands of companies. Under this model, Google entices you into using a wide range of “free” services — Gmail, Google.com, Google Docs, Google Wallet and so on — which, from a business perspective, are just surveillance tools. You and your kids provide the company with an endless stream of personal data, which Google then monetizes. That’s where more than 90 percent of the company’s revenue comes from. Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Google and Facebook sell almost no actual products; for the surveillance-model companies, you and your children are the product.

Google is Very Much at Home

One of the ways Google crushes competition is by buying it. On average, it buys a new company every week. In 2014, for $3.2 billion in cash, Google acquired Nest Laboratories, which manufactured smart thermostats — that is, thermostats that have internet access through your Wi-Fi network. But why buy a thermostat company?

Google bought Nest to better penetrate the boundaries of your home. The first thing they did — quietly — was to add a microphone to the thermostats, and the newest models include cameras. The recent influx of modern smart speakers — Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home being the most popular at the moment — is driven by a set of extremely disturbing goals: listening, recording, analyzing, monetizing and influencing. The Stasi in Germany could only just listen — before they arrested you, anyway. But Home and Alexa — not to mention Apple’s Siri, which gets all of its answers from Google, and the Google Assistant on Android phones — are fully interactive, just like the “telescreens” in George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Such devices not only listen and record continuously, they also give you the answers these companies want you to hear.

People trade security for convenience. Anyone who has ever used a password or flown since post-911 knows that. So how much will we pay Google for making our lives easier?

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