Google[1] is a multinational American corporation, with its origins in providing online search tools, though as it has grown it has since diversified to included mapping, video-hosting (through YouTube), social networking, shopping and more.

It's unofficial company slogan is "Don't Be Evil", generally taken to imply an emphasis on ethical concerns over profit and an unequivocal warning against cutting corners and making suspect decisions as a result of business concerns. Though unofficial, it was included in Larry Page and Sergey Brin's letter to investors preceding their initial public offering in 2004, and was expanded upon (in relation to their search products) as follows:

"Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating. We also display advertising, which we work hard to make relevant, and we label it clearly. This is similar to a well-run newspaper, where the advertisements are clear and the articles are not influenced by the advertisers’ payments. We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see."[2]

Given how integrally the Google founders had embraced this motto, it thus has become a key part of a number of criticism of Google's behavior, highlighting the alleged disconnect between the high moral character of the motto and the reality of the company's practices.

Privacy Policy

In 2009, in response to concerns about Google's privacy policy with regards to users' data, then-CEO Eric Shmidt told CNBC that "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place"[3]. This sparked criticism from online commentators[4], whose arguments generally took the line that Google stands to benefit financially from lax privacy controls, and so this is simply an example of putting profit ahead of the concerns of the users[5]. He has since responded, to both this and the Street View data controversy, that Google has the "most consumer-centric privacy policy of any service online"[6], and has also stated that Google will "remain a place where you can do anonymous searches"[7].

Google published in March 2012 a new updated privacy policy; whereas before they made more than 60 different products and accompanying privacy policies[8], they now all operate under one single umbrella privacy policy, unifying its disparate services. The policy more controversially allows for the sharing all previously-compartmentalised user data between its different platforms, in a move that has been interpreted as a result of the competition it now faces from the likes of Facebook, which has an unprecedented amount of data collected on its users, all of which is of real value to advertisers[9]. This move by Google was help provide more targeted advertising, by far the largest source of the company's revenue.

In April 2013, the ICO confirmed[10] it was investigating Google's unified privacy policy to see if the change violates the Data Protection Act 1998, alongside other European data protection authorities.[11]


First Amendment Defence of Search Results Manipulation

A Google-commissioned legal report defended the right of search engines to edit or otherwise manipulate the results they display, under the American Constitution's First Amendment[12], which prohibits any attempt to curtail freedom of speech, in the same way that a newspaper's editorial discretion to display what stories it likes is protected. This is read by some as a legal justification on the part of Google to begin editing its results to prioritise its own services ahead of those of its competitors[13]. Some critics have criticised the move on the basis of the unforeseeable problems that may be generated if the legal precedent is set for a search algorithm (and more generally, computers) to be granted first amendment rights[14].

Streetview Data Harvesting

In May 2010 Google admitted that its fleet of Google Street View cars had harvested data from wireless networks around the world as they took photos for its Google Maps platform. It was ordered by the Information Commissioner's Office in Britain in December 2010 to delete this data, but it subsequently emerged in July 2012 that not all data had been deleted, as a result of human error[15]. Google made assurances that it was accidental, but following a discontinued FCC investigation that found the software was deliberately written to collect data[16], the IOC has reopened its investigation, and Google is waiting on permission to delete the data that it harvested, whilst the IOC forensically examines it.

The data includes passwords, emails, websites visited and other data that was transmitted on unencrypted wireless networks[17], and has raised serious questions from some about what is potentially a deliberate and illegal violation of privacy.

From January 2006 to March 2010, Google ran a local site based in mainland China under the name This site was subject to censorship of search results in accordance with Chinese law, the so-called "Great Firewall of China". Before was created Google itself was subject to censorship from 2002 onwards[18].

It defended its decision to operate in China and censor its results with the argument that:

"While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information... is more inconsistent with our mission." [19]

This ties in with their mission statement, that declares that "the need for information crosses all borders", and that they seek to "facilitate access to information to the entire world"[20].Google came under widespread and sustained criticism for this decision, with many commentators highlighting the clear disconnect between their "Don't Be Evil" slogan and the morally problematic issue of helping to enable an authoritarian regime's policy of censorship[21]. Those critical of Google's practices during this period included Amnesty International[22], Reporters Without Borders [23] and members of the United States congressmen at a congressional hearing in 2006[24].

In 2010, in response to a series of sophisticated cyber attacks[25], Google announced that it was no longer willing to censor its search results; as a result, visitors to are now redirected to, their site operating out of Hong Kong, which is not subject to the same restrictions on freedom of speech as mainland China.

Manipulation of Page Rankings

As of August 2012, Google began taking copyright violations into account in their search algorithm. Results are now downgraded - or removed altogether - based upon the number of "valid copyright removal notices" it receives, effectively penalising websites that engage in the illegal dissemination of copyrighted material by depriving them of page visits as a result of their downgraded status[26].

This has drawn criticism from some; the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), puts forward the argument that this policy allows "rightsholders to dictate search results", rather than basing it upon page popularity, and highlights the fact that there is no recourse to those sites that are flagged up as "false positives" and falsely demoted"[27]. File-sharing sites including isohunt and Pirate Bay have also dismissed the move as ineffective, saying that rather than reducing copyright infringement, it will merely mean that the content is searched for directly through their and similar sites, rather than Google[28].

The recourse to this is that Google has at least some obligation to take steps to if not prevent, then at least not facilitate, activity that is flagrantly illegal; in the 2011 MacTaggart lecture, Eric Shmidt stated "let me state clearly upfront: we respect copyright"[29], and given Google's increasing positioning of itself as a media platform, not to do so would be disadvantageous. There is also a precedent for the demotion and removal of search results in that Google has for years removed sites accused of hosting child pornography from its search rankings, to no criticism whatsoever.

Furthermore, in November 2012 Google pledged to downgrade piracy sites under review after they were criticised by the government and the creative industry, having been accused to dragging their feet over the issue.[30]

Tracking Safari Users

In August 2012 Google agreed to pay the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) a record $22.5 million penalty[31], after evidences emerged in the months prior that Google was deliberately circumventing security settings on the Safari browser in order to place cookies (data that can be used to track users, for purposes ranging from remembering log-in details to advertising) on the computers of those users who had opted-out of receiving them, the default setting for Safari[32].

Using Google's advertising platform it was capable of tracking users across websites, and with no indication it was doing so. Google responded that the code was implemented to allow them to place their "+1" button on ads, to allow Google+ users to recommend them, and it has since removed the code. An explanation of the technical details of it can be found here.

The FTC penalty does not include admission of wrongdoing on the part of Google; the penalty is for misrepresenting what it was doing rather than the methods themselves[33]. For this reason Consumer Watchdog has asked a judge for permission to oppose the settlement, citing the need for Google to recognise wrongdoing on its part [34], and notes in its motion that one of the information commissioners, Thomas Rosch, dissented for this same reason[35]. A result is pending.

Political Actions

Protesting SOPA

In January 2012 Google put up a special Google Doodle featuring a redacted version of its logo, in protest of the proposed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) bill being debated in Congress. Google was by no means alone in this; protests against SOPA were widespread, both online and offline, with demonstrations in American cities such as New York and San Francisco[36] , and other websites including Wordpress, Reddit and Wired blacking out their content to raise awareness of the alleged dangers of the bill and claims that it would amount to censorship[37]. The bill has effectively been put on hold in face of the widespread opposition.


In November 2012 Google published its Transparency Report[38]. The report talked about a dramatic increase globally in the number of requests from governments to 1) remove certain content from Google and 2) hand over the data of certain users. Key finds include:

  • The UK's governments requests to remove content from Google increased 98%.
  • There were also 249 requests from the Government for access to the data of certain users.



  10. Google braces for fines in Europe over privacy policy, Verge, 2013-04-02
  30. [1]
  38. Google Transparency Report 2012