In early May, the online creator advocacy group Content Creators Coalition (c3) published a digital ad calling on Congress to hold hearings to look into various illegal activities which have been enabled by abuse of online platforms maintained by Google. This push for Congressional oversight of Google comes after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared in hearings before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives in early April. Various matters concerning Capitol Hill’s policymakers during those hearings are only more pronounced with regard to Google, c3 argues.
Zuckerberg’s time on Capitol Hill was directly related to privacy issues created by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which tens of millions of Facebook users had their data scraped by a third-party app developer. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, privacy concerns related to stores of personal data are even more magnified at Google, which collects personal data like website traffic through Google Analytics and allows firms like Facebook to collect data on calls and texts made by Android mobile users.
But as various members of Capitol Hill pointed out during the Zuckerberg hearings, data privacy is not the only major concern among our nation’s lawmakers. During the House hearing, c3 notes that Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) raised the specter of illegal drug sales occurring through online platforms which has helped to fuel the current drug epidemic:
“America is in the midst of one of the worst epidemics that it’s ever experienced with this drug epidemic. It’s all across this country… but your platform is still being used to circumvent the law and allow people to buy highly addictive drugs without a prescription. With all due respect, Facebook is actually enabling an illegal activity and in so doing, you are hurting people…”
According to high-ranking officials in the U.S. government, however, opioid sales are not simply a Facebook problem. In a speech given by U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in early April, the FDA chief said that offers to buy opioids can be found on Google and other online platforms including Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Yahoo and Bing. Back in August 2011, Google agreed to forfeit $500 million in response for its enabling of illicit drug sales from Canadian online pharmacies into the U.S. between 2003, when Google was put on notice of the illegal drug sales issue, and 2009, when Google finally took steps to prevent the sale of unlawful drugs on its platforms. Google has also had to respond more recently to public pressure over fraudulent ads related to drug addiction recovery services to capitalize on increased public interest in drug addiction treatment.
Counterfeits are another area where Google has run afoul of the rules on multiple occasions. Last June, Google faced a pair of trademark suits brought by parties who alleged that Google AdWords enabled other entities to run ads incorporating trademarked terms which redirected people away from the legitimate trademark holder. More recent news reports indicate that fake advertisements in the cryptocurrency space have also been running on Google’s platforms.
Although not a huge concern during the recent round of Congressional hearings with Facebook’s CEO, fake news has been a scourge to online platforms and Google is not immune from its sting. Last January, the Internet giant released an annual “bad ads” report which found that advertisements for fake news websites were increasing on the company’s AdSense platform. Though this and other announcements from Google have been followed by updated corporate policy and purges of bad actors from those platforms, it’s clear that Google’s actions, like Facebook, have been largely retroactive in nature.
There’s plenty of reason for Congress to call on Google officials to testify on these concerns given the massive size of the tech titan. Google has a hold over 89 percent of the Internet search market and if 89 percent of Internet searches are potentially infected with ads for counterfeit products, illicit drugs or fake news, Capitol Hill should have a great desire to make sure that Google doesn’t become the latest unwitting enabler for the next Cambridge Analytica.