The extent of media minister Stephen Conroy’s wide-ranging attack on Google and Facebook today emerged with the publication of Hansard transcripts of his comments at Monday night’s Senate Estimates Committee hearing.
As previously reported, Conroy attacked Google and Facebook for privacy breaches.
But what is clear from today’s transcript is that the attack was lengthy and pre-prepared, rather than off-the-cuff remarks.
Asked by Senator Mary Fisher about Google’s “somehow” collecting wi-fi data with its Streetview vehicles, Conroy responded:
I do not think it was ‘somehow’; I think they set out to collect it.
I note that the German minister has referred it to the criminal authorities for illegal data collection.
This has been worldwide. Google takes the view that they can do anything they want— they do not evil to themselves. I do have a little bit of information. You actually cut into an answer I was hoping to give, but I will take you through the information that I have. It is possible that this has been the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies. After being caught out by European privacy commissioners, Google has admitted that their Streetview cars—the ones that drive down your street and photograph your house without your permission so that they can make it available worldwide for use in their Streetview product—has also been collecting information from people using wi-fi connections; that is, your personal data, including, potentially, emails.
Ten privacy commissioners around the world recently wrote to Google about their concerns. Many privacy commissioners, including Australia’s, are investigating Google for data breaches. Google have admitted to doing this and claim it was a mistake in the software code, meaning that it was actually quite deliberate; the code was collecting it.
The computer program that collects it was designed to collect this information.
Senator Fisher: “Are you disputing Google’s claim that it was inadvertent?”
Senator Conroy: “Yes. I am saying that they wrote a piece of code designed to do it.
It is interesting to note that this claim that it was a mistake came only after the data protection authority in Germany asked to audit Google’s data. They continually say publicly, ‘Trust us.’ This comes on top of recent controversies relating to the Google Buzz product, which made public the details of the people users most emailed and chatted with on their social networking site.
I can fully explain the policies being adopted by a company like Google. In December 2009 their CEO, Eric Schmidt, told CNBC, ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’
At the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona in February the same CEO falsely denied any privacy breach with Buzz. He stated, ‘People thought that somehow we were publishing their email addresses and private information, which was not true’, when it was true. He said, ‘It was our fault that we did not communicate that fact very well, but the important thing is that no really bad stuff happens in the sense that nobody’s personal information was disclosed.’ I repeat that it was. Google Buzz exposed one user’s location to her abusive ex-partner, and it was only after worldwide condemnation of Google that they actually apologised.
People should not mistake the approach being taken by Google on a range of issues around the world.
Senator Fisher: “Obviously there is little love lost between you and Google.”
Senator Conroy: “No, it is fair to say I am just chronicling the activities of Google worldwide. I have not finished yet. At an Abu Dhabi media summit in March 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, ‘Google sees itself really differently from other companies, because we see ourselves as a company with a mission about information and not a mission about revenue or profits.’ Yet at the third quarter earning call for Google on 15 October 2009, Eric Schmidt told Wall Street analysts on the phone hook-up, ‘We love cash.’
Schmidt made the statement about how they were not really doing these things and the abusive ex-partner got someone’s address. Schmidt said that after a civil liberties group had already issued a warning about Buzz’s serious problems with private information and after Google’s own spokesman, Todd Jackson, had said, ‘Google was very, very sorry for getting millions of users rightfully upset.’ Google were also questioned at the Abu Dhabi media summit. Mr Schmidt was asked about the company’s worrisome stash of private data on its users: ‘All this information that you have about us, does that scare anyone in the room?’
The response from Mr Schmidt was: ‘Would you prefer someone else? Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?’ Frankly, I think the approach taken by Mr Schmidt is a bit creepy.
This is a company that says ‘do no evil’, but tries to pretend that it is not motivated by profit and that it knows best and ‘you can trust us’ when it comes to privacy. Unfortunately there are no safeguards. You are dealing with company policy. There are more issues that I will come to when we get to YouTube later. When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, ‘Trust us.’ They state on the website, ‘Trust us.’
They consider themselves to be above government. They consider that they are the appropriate people to make the decisions about people’s privacy data, that they are perfectly entitled to drive the streets and collect private information by photographing over fences and collecting data/information. This is probably the single greatest breach in history of privacy. That is why so many governments around the world have reacted in the way they have to a company like Google.
We will see what the Privacy Commissioner has to say, but we will be watching it very closely.
Senator Fisher: “If the Privacy Commissioner concludes that, for example, there is no breach of privacy issues, what would you do then?
Senator Conroy—If there is no breach of privacy issues, there is nothing we can do. We will have conversations.”
Senator Scott Ludlam: “You just went on a 10-minute tirade of corporate character assassination…”
Conroy: “No. I find it intriguing that you would describe pointing to their actual activities, actual public statements by their leading company officials, as character assassination. I described their own words and their own actions. If you view that as character assassination, I would say I think it is self-assassination.”
The committee then turned to discussions of Conrouy’s proposed Inernet filter and asked about the cotnent policies of YouTube, which is owned by Google
- YouTube is not for pornography or sexually explicit content …
- Don’t post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug or substance abuse, or bomb making.
- Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed …
- YouTube is not a shock site. Don’t post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies and similar things.
They say ‘we don’t permit hate speech’ and go on: There is zero tolerance for predatory behaviour, stalking, threats, harassment, invading privacy. And there is a range of other conditions as well.
These guidelines do raise some interesting questions. Who makes the decisions about those issues? We do not know—I have not been able to get any extra information on that.
There is no independent board that is representative of the community making the decisions against the legislative criteria. Are the criteria narrower than what the government is proposing for mandatory filtering? No, they are actually much, much broader, which may surprise you, given Google’s campaign at the moment. They include X18+ and R18+ content as well as RC content. How do we know what they have blocked? We do not. Whilst Google says it reports content that is removed from its search engine results to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, with regard to YouTube content it says:
If we remove your video after reviewing it, you can assume that we removed it purposefully— that is, ‘trust us’. They just say, ‘Trust us; we know what we’re doing; we’ve removed it.’ There is no avenue for appeal or discussion.
How do you know that they have not blocked other things? You do not. There is no appeals mechanism and there are no transparency measures. Google certainly does not publish a list of content that has been blocked as they argue the government should. How do we know Google will not ban other things in the future? We do not. Google says: ‘Our policies are always evolving; decisions to allow, restrict or remove content from our services and products often require judgement calls.’
There is no commitment to prevent scope creep in the future and no legislative mechanism to underpin any future change. Contrast that with the National Classification Scheme, which the government’s filtering policy is based on, which requires the agreement of all state and territory attorneys-general as well as the Commonwealth Attorney-General and the passing of legislation by the Australian parliament. I would probably back the Australian parliament over these mysterious individuals who engage in this process at Google.
A funny instance came up just this month that you may have a chuckle at. Google was accused of, for example, double standards after it decided to censor the placement of ads for an adult dating site. Googlerefused to serve the company’s ads into third party websites. It was called Cougar Life. This is a real story. They deemed the ads for Cougar Life as unsafe for family audiences.
Google have also admitted to censoring political material in Thailand where content is critical of the Thai royal family. It blocks pro-Nazi propaganda in Germany. It removes content that criticises the Turkish founder. I did see, although I have not confirmed this, a reference on Q&A recently which suggested they block material in India also.
Sometimes, unfortunately, it does not block things that perhaps it should, as was demonstrated recently when a Milan court convicted three Google executives for violating the privacy of an Italian boy with Down syndrome by letting a video of him being bullied be posted on the site in 2006 remain there for a considerable period of time. There are lots of contradictions in the approach taken by some in this debate.
Senator Ludlam: “I have a couple of questions that do not relate at all to Google but I cannot help but ask, Minister, in your quite comprehensive comments just before, would you not acknowledge that there is a substantial difference between a corporation hosting an opt-in video hosting site where you can choose to go and host your videos or look at your videos somewhere else if you disagree with their policy and an entire country seeking to implement what I would have thought were many of the features that you just seemed to be condemning.
Conroy: “I was not condemning what it is that they censor, I was merely pointing out that Google have one position when they advocate to a government and another position in which they themselves behave and I was pointing to the inherent contradiction between the lack of accountability in their processes and, frankly, exposing their hypocrisy.
Ludlam: But you are drawing direct comparisons between the way you want to run a country and a corporate video-sharing site.”
Senator Conroy: “Ninety-seven per cent of every internet user in the UK goes through a filter similar to the one that we are discussing. We have a slightly broader content classification, but 97 per cent of internet users in the UK go through a filter. The figures are between 80 per cent and 90 per cent for at least half a dozen other European countries where ISPs have been willing to voluntarily introduce the sort of filter that we are talking about. Not one company in this country up until recently has been willing to entertain a filter. Not one has introduced it.”
Conroy was then fed a question about facebook by fellow Labor senator Dana Wortley.
Wortley: “Minister, earlier this evening you mentioned Google. Are they the only internet organisation to be committing privacy breaches?
Senator Conroy—I am disappointed to say, unfortunately no. Facebook has also shown a complete disregard for users’ privacy recently. If you are not awareFacebook, I understand, was developed by Harvard University student, Mark Zuckerberg, who after breaking up with his girlfriend developed a website of all the photos from the Harvard yearbook so that he and his mates could rank the girls according to their looks—an auspicious start for Facebook.
He was encouraged to develop this further and Facebook, the social networking phenomenon, was born.
Facebook has been rolling out changes to its privacy laws over recent months and as one blogger recently put it: Facebook has gone rogue. Facebook used to be a place to share photos and thoughts with friends and family, a useful way to keep in touch. Then Facebook realised it owned the network and decided to turn your profile into your identity online, figuring rightly that there is money and power in being the place where people define themselves. These are all quotes from this blog.
In December last year Facebook reneged on its privacy promises and made much of your profile public by default, including the city you live in, your name, your photo, the names of your friends and the causes you have signed on to.
Then it went further and linked all the things you said you liked to your public profile; your music preferences, employment information, reading preference, schools—all made public.
Fourteen privacy groups have filed an unfair trade complaint against Facebook with the FTC. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, says privacy is no longer a social norm. A leaked email from Mr Zuckerberg recently referred to Facebook users—and I will have to censor this because we are in parliament—as dumb, and then the next word begins with ‘f’, for giving him all their private information and not expecting him to use it.
So, what would you prefer, Senator Wortley, a corporate giant who is answerable to no-one and motivated solely by profit making the rules on the internet, or a democratically elected government with all the checks and balances in place.?