This week came news -- via the leak of Sony documents -- that State Attorneys General have opened up an investigation against Google. And that the movie industry has provided them with evidence to back up claims that Google is facilitating content theft, while others have shown that Google is making it easy to illegally buy drugs and steroids, stolen credit card and counterfeit passports and other fake documents.
And Google is shocked, shocked, to find that a group I oversee - the Digital Citizens Alliance -- has been supported by the movie industry, and that we've demonstrated that Google is falling short of its promise to "don't be evil." Instead, Google wants to frame the State Attorneys General efforts as an attempt to resurrect the SOPA-PIPA battle to combat piracy.
Sorry, Google, this is about you, not SOPA-PIPA. For the record, I didn't support the SOPA-PIPA legislation when it was being debated and haven't changed my view. So, Google and Digital Citizens are on the same page about that legislation.
Google seems adamant against any form of blacklisting of dangerous websites. Except, of course, when it isn't. In 2006, Google funded an initiative called Stopbadware that was operated by Harvard's Berkman Center. I know, I helped launch the program that identified websites that exposed Internet users to computer viruses and other malware. Stopbadware researchers work to review over 1.5 million websites that have been deemed dangerous and blacklisted by providers such as Google. To date they claim to have helped more than 168,000 sites remove themselves from those lists.*
Sadly, Google's willingness to make the Internet safer seems to stop there.
Three years ago Google agreed to pay $500 million to make go away a Justice Department investigation that showed that the company helped overseas pharmacies illegally market prescription drugs in the United States. After that, why should we be surprised that State Attorneys General would be concerned about Google's role in endangering their citizens?
Now, what the State Attorneys General appear to be focused on is not what SOPA-PIPA was about, but more specifically Google's questionable behavior.
And that behavior is this: Google seems to oppose nearly all efforts to combat websites that promote the sale of illegally obtained drugs, content theft, scams, counterfeits or fake IDs, perhaps because in the past Google has stood to gain financially from these sites.
We know because Digital Citizens has worked on all of these issues, although about only 20 percent of our work has involved Google. And we've actually gone to bat for Google by condemning criminals counterfeiting their Google apps.
Google doesn't like the fact that Digital Citizens gets funded in part by the movie industry. Actually, we get funding from lots of others as well, some of which are also concerned with your behavior, and others who care about online safety issues like unethical online pharmacies, counterfeit products and fake IDs.
For example, Digital Citizens pointed out that Google allowed drug dealers to promote Oxycontin, Percocet and other narcotics on YouTube; that had nothing to do with the motion picture industry. And when the media got interested, Google removed thousands of YouTube videos under pressure. And when Digital Citizens pointed out that Google was allowing illegal steroids to be marketed on YouTube, and the media got interested, the company once again removed hundreds of videos. And when Google was found to be allowing thieves to promote the sale of stolen credit cards on YouTube, Google hurriedly removed those videos as well.
See a pattern? In other words, Google only acts when shamed or pressured. And when it really feels the heat, it writes a big check, like it did with the DOJ.
For the most part, Digital Citizens doesn't publicize our members because we do a lot of edgy stuff, such as sting operations where we videotaped online pharmacies offering to illegally sell narcotics to a 15-year-old or credit card thieves offering to sell us stolen credit cards. We also shed led light on the amount of illegal drug sales going on in the so-called DarkNet marketplaces.
This Sony hacker leak will come and go, as will juicy details of company emails. And here's what we will be left with: serious concerns about Google's willingness to protect consumers. Our reports exposed the fact that Google allowed criminals to promote drugs, counterfeits and stolen credit cards on its online properties -- and worse, that Google made money by selling ads in conjunction with those activities.
State Attorneys General are independent law enforcement officials who take a lot of information from interested parties, then make up their own minds if there is a case to pursue. And I admire them for it. When State Attorneys General took on the tobacco industry a decade ago, they heard from interested parties about behavior that endangered their citizens. That's their job, and they do it well.
So Google, no matter how you spin it, your willingness to help criminals and other bad actors is under scrutiny. And it will continue to be so until you change your behavior and live up to your promise to be a great company.
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated after publication to clarify the relationship between Stopbadware and data providers such as Google.