Analysis As blowback against Facebook and its business model enters its third week, with netizens railing against the amount and type of personal data the social network has on them, calls for new privacy laws have started growing.
And in response so has a secret lobbying effort, spearheaded by Google, to head those calls off at the pass.
The search giant's largest fear is currently that US legislators will consider bringing across European legislation that enables people to force Google to remove links from its database – the so-called "Right to be Forgotten." The system is under serious scrutiny right now in the UK courts.
While Facebook is being slammed for storing and selling personal data sucked or typed into its website, Google's vast profits come from similar but slightly different data gathering: search results connected to user accounts, related user data from its many apps, and a vast searchable database of information posted online by others.
The Right to be Forgotten rules effectively give users a greater right over their data than Google: you can tell Google not to link to or store information about you from other sources.
This is a significant threat to Google's business model and so it has been fighting the measure for years. It lost in Europe – where governments are increasingly imposing greater privacy protections – and now it is worried that a new wave of awareness and concerns over personal data in the US will encourage Americans to push for similar measures.
It is worth noting that Google is still smarting from the approval of new laws in America aimed at tackling sex traffickers online. The SESTA-FOSTA legislation broke blanket legal protections over user content by inserting an exception into Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Essentially, it is now possible for websites and internet service providers to be on the hook for stuff posted by their users that promotes or facilitates prostitution.
Google was fiercely opposed to the law, but a rare split occurred in the tech industry when Facebook decided it would stop fighting the legislation, in large part because it needed to build some goodwill following months of attacks over its dissemination of Russian-crafted disinformation during the US presidential election.
One of the interesting things about the Google-Facebook split on SESTA-FOSTA was that it demonstrated who the predominant tech giant voice is in several Washington DC lobbying groups.
When Facebook decided in the background that it would back SESTA-FOSTA, following the addition of a small amendment, the first outward sign was when the Internet Association did an unexpected U-turn and went from opposition to support.
Google is also a member of the Internet Association but was not on board with the support of SESTA. It continues to feel – with some justification – that once Section 230 is opened up, it will be constantly fending off other efforts to include other exceptions.
So while the Internet Association came out in support of SESTA-FOSTA, two other key tech lobbying firms – Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and NetChoice – continued to oppose it. Google and Facebook are members of both organizations.
The CTA is a broader tech industry association whereas NetChoice is a smaller, more specifically internet industry association.
Even as Facebook was turning in favor of SESTA-FOSTA, behind the scenes NetChoice was instrumental in getting a manager's amendment to the law written into it as it passed through the House. That amendment basically removed the Section 230 change with wording was eerily similar to text floated by NetChoice.
Biggest Washington DC lobbyist is now a tech giant (yes, it's Google)READ MORE
It resulted in a big counter-lobby from victims of sex trafficking and the amendment was pulled out. But NetChoice kept pushing, backing a later amendment, which also fell.
All of which, given the higher status afforded Google and Facebook within industry lobbying associations (thanks no doubt to higher contributions), provides some useful shorthand: Internet Association = Facebook; NetChoice = Google.
And so a post this month by NetChoice's director of communications pushing back against the "Right to be Forgotten" – let’s go with the acronym RTBF – is of particular interest. The post paints RTBF as a tool of censorship used by "crooks, felons, and malpractitioners."
It uses Google's annual transparency report to claim that the "controversial policy" has been abused and resulted in the "suppression of valuable information."
It has also, according to NetChoice, "undermined free speech, public wellbeing, and the free flow of information" and "opened the door for mass censorship."
The problem is that Google's transparency report doesn't actually support those fierce criticisms.
It does provide a lot of information in aggregate about RTBF requests, and an accompanying Google blog post notes that the web giant has decided to split requests into a new set of categories.
In order of size, largest to smallest, they are: professional information (24 per cent); miscellaneous (21 per cent); name not found (16 per cent); self authored (10 per cent); crime (8 per cent); professional wrongdoing (7 per cent); personal information (7 per cent); political (3 per cent); and sensitive personal information (2 per cent).
Despite these stats, Google's lobbyists claim that "of the total removal requests made, 31 per cent were related to frauds and scams, 20 per cent were violent or serious crime arrests, and 12 per cent were child pornography arrests."
And the post then includes a large graphic that flips those stats and argues that: "63 per cent of requests for removal were related to: child pornography arrests; violent and serious crime arrests; frauds and scams."
Google's own stats would suggest that the true figure is not 63 per cent however but 15 per cent – covering "crime" and "professional wrongdoing."
Where did the 63 per cent figure come from? An article from 2014, no less, when the RTBF law had been in place for less than a month.
Not only did that dataset cover only the first few weeks of a new policy, it was only for Google UK and Ireland – which the article itself notes accounts for just 13 per cent of the total requests in those early weeks.
Wrong and wrong
Regardless, the article written by Danny Sullivan – who, coincidentally, now works for Google – argues that those stats "are probably a pretty good indicator of what's likely to follow."
Sullivan was entirely wrong, as Google's latest stats make clear. It is particularly noteworthy that the most popular website in terms of requests to Google to stop linking to or storing information is Facebook.com, accounting for more than three times the number of addresses than the next most popular.
It is safe to assume that very few posts on Facebook cover child sexual abuse arrests, violent and serious crime arrests, or frauds and scams. Regardless, the blog post from Google's lobbyists goes to some lengths to suggest otherwise.
Why? Well, first up there is the FTC formally acknowledging that it is digging into Facebook's use of data, which is likely to bring in calls for more rules and regulations around data privacy.
Then there are proposals – like this one from consumer protection organization Public Knowledge – which lists as its number one principle that "Americans deserve the right to own and control their personal information."
And there is Mark Zuckerberg's own suggestion that it may be time for Facebook to be regulated – an unusual position for the company's CEO to take.
In short, while Facebook is in the spotlight and under fire, expect to see and hear in the coming months how any suggestions for giving people the right to remove their data from the internet giants' databases – undercutting their advertising selling abilities – is akin to censorship and the sort of thing that only criminals and kiddie-fiddlers really want.
The chances are it won't be true, and it may well be that Google is behind it. ®