Google, Agents of the True Dark Web?
The convenience of the “free” Internet, it’s often thought, must be paid for with data. The concept brings to mind an interrogation scene in one of those 60-minute crime dramas where an accomplice can exchange information for immunity to prosecution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most adept practitioners in the information trade also boasts one of the most valuable brands in the history of the Internet: Google. As of 2015, what began as a search engine has been formally restructured as Alphabet, Inc., a multinational conglomerate which owns over 200 companies such as YouTube, DoubleClick (an ad agency), Motorola, and even portions of HTC.
There is no table, no back room, and no thick cigarette smoke to drift uneasily out of frame. The information trade simply doesn’t need all of those bells and whistles, anymore. It can be done with the same speed and efficiency as clicking a like button. However, while a user might briefly register changing a tiny thumb to a new shade of blue, these transactions are almost completely invisible.
No one who performs a Google search pays for it directly, but they do pay. Information and marketing is valuable enough that in the third quarter of 2019 alone, Google made 40.3 billion dollars most of which comes from targeted advertising revenue. This includes YouTube ads, ads embedded in Google Play apps, and, of course, AdSense, Google’s frontend platform for analyzing and hosting targeted traffic on third-party servers.
While many argue that this model is in fact necessary to continue enjoying a free Internet and that these ads are easy to simply ignore, there is another, more visible cost imposed on Google’s many, many audiences. Loading a Web page is oddly slow in 2020, approximately 300% slower than it could be, according to one estimate. That slowdown, in large part, comes from said advertisements, each of which is professionally and completely tailored to both the device and the user behind it, more often than not thanks to Google.
Some might claim that an average user, should they wish, can simply opt-out of things like Google’s location services, clear their cookies, log out of any of their accounts when surfing the Web, or use tools such as AdBlock Plus if they want to stay off the tech giant’s radar. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Google’s adroit usage of intelligent supercookies, files which nestle into a device and endlessly recreate themselves if deleted are but one way that Google can follow anyone around the Web. Additionally, hidden “beacons,” images which persist between Web sites, or canvas fingerprinting, which allows an ad executive to log the unique way a computer renders picture data is frequently employed. A general form of fingerprinting which is more often encountered records the specific configuration and version of a user’s browser software. Of course, there is IP geolocation data, or hardware snapshots of a user’s system configuration “anonymously” sent to HQ by things such as Google Chrome, but all of these are only a small fraction of the many ways a user can be followed, collated, and marketed to.
It’s not enough, however, that a limitless array of methods exist to collect and catalog someone’s browsing habits. According to W3Techs, Google Analytics, the company’s free Web user information collection software, can be found on 55.2 percent of all Web sites, as of 2015. Simply avoiding the vast web of data collection is impractical if not impossible.
And where do all of these resources go, exactly? Google has, in a rather expansionist way, become a major contender in multiple technology arenas, creating an OS in the form of the free Android platform, the Pixel tablet, Chrome browser, and even founding a biotech company known as Calico, whose benefit remains to be seen. On the surface, they are a benevolent, successful, and intelligent organization shaping the world in creative ways that both inspire and fascinate.
Digging a little deeper, as it sometimes does, reveals another, more sinister side. For starters, Google’s impressive income hasn’t been properly taxed. In 2017, Google was caught funneling 23 billion dollars through Bermuda, which is notoriously lenient on corporate taxation. Their tax evasion is so rampant, that a tax levy in the U.K. specifically targeted at tech companies now informally bears their name. In 2017, again, a contract was signed between Google as a cloud service provider for Customs and Border Patrol, one of the more controversial branches of government during the Trump Era. A petition in protest of Google’s partnership with the zero-tolerance agency has been signed by more than 700 Google employees, as of 2019. Just as recently, they are under Federal scrutiny for the formerly secret Project Nightingale, an operation that collects healthcare data about U.S. citizens on behalf of their partner, Ascension. Project Dragonfly, abandoned after yet another government inquiry, would have been a censored search engine deployed in China that set dangerous precedents for human rights, something Google doesn’t put as high of a price on as a business opportunity.
Google’s self-described AI ethics council, conceived to provide external input from influential figures on proprietary technology from facial recognition systems to possibly even its search engine crashed and burned after, again, massive protest by employees over the inclusion of Kay Coles James. James, president of the Heritage Foundation, is a notorious anti-LGBTQ activist who aggressively supported both Trump’s candidacy and border wall initiative. And Kay isn’t the only anti-LGBTQ figure Google evidently values, donating nearly 20,000 dollars in campaign funds to Ted Cruz, a Republican candidate who has repeatedly attempted to legalize the discrimination of businesses against same-sex couples.
While many of these moves by Google are quite recent, their history is no more pristine. In 2010, Google was, after lying several times to various governments, outed for unlawful Wi-Fi sniffing and information collection as part of its StreetView campaign. Google, for its trouble, netted itself collective fines of more than 100 million dollars. From 2003 until 2011, when Google was caught, this time in a sting operation, it earned itself a fine of 500 million dollars for allowing unregulated Canadian drugs to be advertised to American citizens.
The picture that emerges when scrutinizing Google becomes harder to deny the closer one looks: A tax-free monopolistic empire that unlawfully feeds itself on information, bombards its user base with suspiciously knowledgeable advertisement, partners with and funds human rights’ abusers, and pays what is by comparison to its monstrous revenue a laughable sum, all the while masquerading as a progressive haven of free thought that only wants to unite people using technology. And who could be blamed for being taken in by that charisma? After all, they said it was free.
Anyone wishing to simultaneously safeguard their privacy as well as help put a stranglehold on a ruthless company’s main revenue stream is invited to check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation, TailsOS, and The TOR Project for more information. Or to try DuckDuckGo search engine.