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Fort Report Column: Google

October 2, 2018

For most of its history, the unofficial motto of search engine giant Google was “Don’t Be Evil.” The phrase is so deeply ingrained in the company’s DNA that it is the basis of the wireless password on shuttles that shepherd Google employees to the Mountain View, California, “Googleplex.” The motto is also the first three words of the company’s long-standing Code of Conduct, whose first paragraph reads: “‘Don’t be evil.’ Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users… It’s also about doing the right thing more generally — following the law, acting honorably...”

In a recent letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) and I challenged Google to be true to its motto in marketing to children. We were inspired by 23 child and privacy advocacy groups, who in April 2018 filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that Google’s YouTube online video and advertising network systematically collected data on the online habits of tens of millions of children under the age of 13 and sold that data to marketers.

YouTube is the most popular online platform for children on earth. Eight out of ten US children ages 6-12 use it daily. It’s so popular with kids that it’s considered the “new children’s TV.” Child-directed channels such as Ryan ToysReview and Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs are among YouTube’s most popular.

Google’s business model works like this. Advertisers pay a hefty fee to ensure that their ads reach their target market. To help marketers better target their ads, Google collects intimate personal information on users. Herein lie the questions: Is Google doing enough to protect children from adult content? And is Google’s behavioral, search, device, and geographic tracking of children in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits collecting, using, or disclosing children’s personal information without advance verified parental consent?

Google’s CEO has not yet responded to Representative Cicilline’s and my questions, which seek to ascertain the viewing habits of children on YouTube; how Google determines if a user is a child; how data collection differs between children and adults; and whether a user’s age is a factor in Google’s algorithms.

Our intention is not to elicit more pro forma responses on how Google’s Terms of Service direct children to the company’s far-less-popular app, YouTube for Kids, where privacy and filtering functions are more robust. We, instead, hope Google comes clean on the fact that most child users go to the “main” YouTube site, where no age gate exists to prevent children from accessing adult content and where there are no barriers to the profiling of children for marketing purposes. Google needs to demonstrate that it takes child protection so seriously that it ensures no child accesses YouTube without parental permission and that guardrails are in place to protect the privacy, safety, and sanctity of childhood.

When Google reorganized under a new parent company in 2015 -– Alphabet -– it retained the “Don’t Be Evil” motto. But in May of this year, the motto was removed from Code of Conduct documents the company distributes to all employees. Not long after, evidence leaked that Google was developing a censored version of its search engine that enabled the Chinese government to better collect data on its people. Recently, Google found itself in the crosshairs of Congress when it failed to send its CEO to a Senate hearing on election interference, censorship, and privacy.

The Internet is a remarkable tool of discovery, social engagement, and commerce. Google is the largest company by market cap on earth. Google offers convenience in exchange for our privacy. This daily Faustian bargain is so automatic that we no longer “search” for information, we “Google it.”

But sometimes the Internet’s technological benefits obscure time-honored values essential to a humane, decent, and dignified world. I want Google to answer our questions. More than that, I want Google to be true to its motto: “Don’t Be Evil.”

Here is the letter that Representative Cicilline and I sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai: https://bit.ly/2xuXFVn

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