Google Screenwise: An Unwise Trade of All Your Privacy for Cash

With each passing day, it’s increasingly clear that we can’t rely on the “ethics” and “value systems” of corporations to judge their own messaging around consent Imagine this: an enormous tech company is tracking what you do on your phone, even when you’re not using any of its services, down to the specific images that you see. It’s also tracking all of your network traffic, because you’re installing one of its specially-designed routers. And even though some of that traffic is encrypted, it can still know what websites you visit, due to how DNS resolution works. Oh, it’s also recording audio from a custom-microphone that’s placed near your TV, and analyzing what it hears. It’s an always-on panopticon. In exchange for your privacy (and the privacy of any guests who may be using your Internet connection, or talking near your television), you receive a gift card for a whopping $20. No, we’re not talking about Facebook—we’ve already detailed the frightening consequences of Facebook’s sneaky, privacy-invading and security-breaking “user research” program. This is Google’s “ScreenWise Meter,” another “research program” that, much like Facebook’s, caused an upheaval this week when it was exposed. In order to spy on iOS users, Facebook took advantage of Apple’s enterprise application program to get around Apple’s strict app distribution rules. When news of this Facebook program hit earlier this week, Google scrambled to pull the plug on its own “user research” application, which was taking advantage of the same Apple program. Apple quickly revoked both organizations’ Enterprise Certificates, shutting down all of Facebook’s and Google’s internal iOS applications and tooling, leaving the two giants in disarray. We’re not a fan of Apple’s walled-garden approach to application distribution and its strict control over who gets to play on its platform and who doesn’t. However, this drama shined a valuable spotlight on deceptive messages to users and data harvesting practices surrounding two so-called “opt-in” “research” panopticons. Although Google pulled its iOS application, all the other parts of its Screenwise Meter surveillance program are still in operation—and in some cases, they collect even more data about their “research users” than the Facebook counterpart did.

Why This Google Shareholder Wants an End to Project Nimbus

Hundreds of Google’s own employees have spoken out against this controversial contract, which provides advanced technology that will be used to further oppress and harm millions of Palestinians

Today, for the first time in company history, Google shareholders like me voted on a resolution that calls into question a contract with the Israeli government and military known as Project Nimbus. Hundreds of Google's own employees have spoken out against this controversial contract, which provides advanced technology that will be used to further oppress and harm millions of Palestinians.

Through its Project Nimbus contract, Google provides cloud services to the Israeli army, making it easier for Israel to surveille and oppress Palestinians.

Shareholder resolutions have become an important tool for demanding ethical business practices in boardrooms. The resolution asks that Google and parent company Alphabet evaluate the harm caused by contracts with institutions that have violated human rights, like the Israeli military, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These contentious deals lead people to rightfully ask why a company that creates products we all know and rely on every day would also create and supply products to institutions that violate people's basic human rights.

For years, prominent human rights organizations have raised alarms about Israel's brutal oppression of Palestinians. There is now a near-total consensus among the United Nations and all major human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel's leading human rights organization B'Tselem, that Israel's discriminatory policies and practices against Palestinians amounts to the serious crime of apartheid.

Through its Project Nimbus contract, Google provides cloud services to the Israeli army, making it easier for Israel to surveille and oppress Palestinians. The contract also provides data support to the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which according to Human Rights Watch, uses discriminatory policies to expand illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land where Palestinians aren't allowed to live.

Google has had incredible success recruiting a diverse workforce, and they should be embracing employees who want to make the company better. The company may have difficulties retaining talent if it pursues contracts that run contrary to Google's stated corporate values that attracted employees to the company in the first place. In May of last year, 250 Jewish employees at Google urged the company to support Palestinian rights and end its ties with the Israeli military, and nearly 700 Google employees signed a petition rejecting the Project Nimbus contract.

Google aspires to value democracy, accountability, and safety, and rightfully says that companies "can make money without doing evil." But as tech evolves and becomes more pervasive in almost every aspect of our lives, there is a growing awareness of the threat it can pose to human rights. Google has canceled these kinds of contracts before and it should reverse its contract with the Israeli military too. After public backlash over a contract with the US military, Google outlined new ethical principles for its use of artificial technology (AI), including a commitment not to use AI for weapons or surveillance, particularly in cases where there is a violation of "internationally accepted norms." Given the outcry from human rights organizations over Israel's system of apartheid, the Project Nimbus contract sharply conflicts with Google's stated ethical standards.

As shareholders, we believe that Google's commitment to ethics is a good thing for society and for investors. Not only do Google's AI principles help ensure that Google technology is used to bring people together, rather than cause harm, but these ethical commitments also make Google unique amongst its competitors in a world where more and more users want companies they support to share their values.

Ethical business matters. Increasingly, workers, consumers, and even investors are demanding better from corporations. Google has a choice: instead of enabling human rights abuses, it should promote technology that has a positive impact on the world. Google can and should stand on the right side of history by ending Project Nimbus.

Warren, Jayapal Demand Google Stop Trying to ‘Bully’ DOJ Antitrust Official

"Noting similar efforts by Amazon and Facebook, they said the tech giant "should focus on complying with antitrust law rather than attempting to rig the system with these unseemly tactics."
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal on Wednesday sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding that the company swiftly end its "ongoing attempts to strip Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter of his authority to enforce antitrust law."

"These efforts to bully regulators and avoid accountability... are untethered to federal ethics law and regulations."

The day after Kanter took the oath of office to lead the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) in November—following a bipartisan Senate vote confirming his nomination—Google suggested in the letter to federal officials that Kanter should be recused from litigation and probes against the tech giant because he may not be "fair and impartial."

Google's stance apparently has not changed. CNBC reported Wednesday that a spokesperson pointed to an earlier statement about his recusal, saying, "Mr. Kanter's past statements and work representing competitors who have advocated for the cases brought by the department raise serious concerns about his ability to be impartial."

Warren (D-Mass.)—who voted to confirm Kanter—and Jayapal (D-Wash.) pushed back against Google's claims, writing that "the company's attempts to force Mr. Kanter off current and future cases are misguided and reflect what appears to be a willful misunderstanding and misrepresentation of federal ethics mandates."

Echoing earlier arguments from experts, the pair laid out why Kanter's recusal isn't required under federal law:

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Kanter's work involving Google at the DOJ would affect his "financial interest." Second, Mr. Kanter has never represented either Google or the United States, the two parties that would be involved in any "particular matter" involving action by the federal government against the company. Third, although Google as a corporation with a clear financial interest in weak antitrust enforcement appears to be willing to question Mr. Kanter's impartiality, there is no basis for a reasonable person to do so given that Mr. Kanter's prior work has aligned with the federal government's interest in robust enforcement of antitrust law.

Kanter, a well-known antitrust attorney whose nomination by President Joe Biden last year was welcomed as a win for workers and consumers, "is eminently qualified to lead the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division, and it is unfair and inappropriate of your company to question his impartiality," the progressive lawmakers wrote.

"These efforts to bully regulators and avoid accountability—which are similar to those of Facebook and Amazon earlier this year—are untethered to federal ethics law and regulations, and we urge you to cease them immediately," they added. "Google should focus on complying with antitrust law rather than attempting to rig the system with these unseemly tactics."

Jayapal and Warren, joined by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), similarly called out Amazon and Facebook last year for attempting to "strip Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan of her authority to enforce antitrust law."

Like with Kanter, Biden's nomination and the Senate's bipartisan confirmation of Khan, an "antitrust trailblazer," were widely celebrated by critics of Big Tech hopeful that the appointees will hold companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google accountable for alleged illegal conduct.

"Google is right to fear that the company may have run afoul of federal antitrust law and that more aggressive enforcement from effective regulators could affect the company's operations and bottom line," wrote Warren and Jayapal, noting that U.S. officials "have filed a plethora of lawsuits against Google regarding alleged anti-competitive and exclusionary practices."

"If Google is serious about ending conflicts of interest in Washington, it can demonstrate its sincerity by supporting legislation, like the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, to strengthen federal ethics requirements," the Democrats said, referencing a bill they jointly reintroduced in 2020.

"Otherwise," they warned the Google CEO, "your efforts to sideline key federal regulators—like similar actions by Facebook and Amazon—simply serve as further evidence that you will go to all lengths to ward off necessary scrutiny of your immense market power."