«

»

Analysis: Why Google has become a threat to sovereign law

Google-National-Security-Agency-NSA

 

By Simon Davies

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has lashed out at Google, accusing the advertising giant of collusion with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the US State Department.

Assange believes that Google has entered into a partnership with the US Administration in which the company acts as a foreign policy enabler, influencing overseas governments and helping the White House achieve its global policy objectives. In the process Google has formed strong operational and policy bonds with America’s secretive three-letter agencies that go well beyond those of other companies.

 In the process Google has formed strong operational and policy bonds with America’s secretive three-letter agencies that go well beyond those of other companies. 

This is a crucially important aspect of an equally crucial dynamic in global affairs. The relationship between companies and government – in all its unpalatable forms – has been shrouded for decades, and has become bar-talk only in recent months.

Assange rightly points out that Google – along with other companies – has been taking millions of dollars from the NSA in return for cooperation with PRISM and other interception programs. This, however, is stale news. US telecommunication providers were given hundreds of millions of dollars from the 1990s to make the US phone system wiretap-friendly. The main UK comms provider, BT, received lucrative funding from the government for its work placing interception taps. It’s a game everyone plays.

No, Assange is talking of a potentially more sinister relationship. He alleges that Google has become enmeshed in US policy to the point where it assumes de-facto official status. He recalls, for example, one of his staff attempting to reach Hilary Clinton at the State Department, only to receive a return call from Lisa Shields,   a woman who did not even work for the State Department but who did happen to be then girlfriend of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Yet, even if plausible, this bizarre situation doesn’t even begin to reflect the full story. Getting the State Department to let your girlfriend handle difficult calls is just one perk from investing big money in lobbying. Indeed Google spends more on lobbying in Washington than does any other tech company – and more than many major defence companies. 

Getting the State Department to let your girlfriend handle difficult calls is just one perk from investing big money in lobbying.

Perhaps this vast lobbying effort explains the silence on Capitol Hill over recent disclosures about Google’s covert activities. Documents published last year by WikiLeaks obtained from the US intelligence contractor Stratfor, show that in 2011 Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, was running secret missions to the edge of Iran in Azerbaijan to persuade local mobile companies to cosy up to American bases.

In these internal emails, Fred Burton, Stratfor’s Vice President for Intelligence and a former senior State Department official, describes Google as follows:

“Google is getting WH [White House] and State Dept support and air cover. In reality they are doing things the CIA cannot do…[Cohen] is going to get himself kidnapped or killed. Might be the best thing to happen to expose Google’s covert role in foaming up-risings, to be blunt. The US Gov’t can then disavow knowledge and Google is left holding the shit-bag”

These disclosures are a far cry from the “Don’t be Evil” days back in Google’s infancy. They portray Google’s leadership as aggressive and ambitious politicians who strive to become the outsourced foreign policy lead for America.

These disclosures are a far cry from the “Don’t be Evil” days back in Google’s infancy. They portray Google’s leadership as aggressive and ambitious politicians who strive to become the outsourced foreign policy lead for America. 

Capitol Hill may choose to disregard such evidence but overseas nations are sometimes not bought off quite so easily. Concerned about Google’s complicity with the NSA, the Indian government plans to ban the use of Gmail for official correspondence. The matter has also become a key issue in the run-up to the German federal elections in the third week of September.

Google is fast developing a reputation as a rogue company that pursues its own agenda at the expense of the rule of law. At the time of writing the Dutch data protection authority has published a ruling that outlaws Google Analytics – a decision that mirrors bans by Germany and Norway. Google has simply refused to offer a lawful contract.

Earlier this year Sweden banned public sector use of Google’s cloud services over privacy concerns, while France and Spain have ruled that the company is operating unlawfully in those countries.

It is now becoming a momentous task to document all the findings against Google by trade and privacy authorities, but the true threat posed by the company goes much further than mere transgressions of law. Google is now claiming immunity from the law itself.

This goes beyond the recent extraordinary claim made by Google in the US that users should have no expectation of privacy. That position is worrisome enough, but the company now says it is exempt from overseas law.

This latest development surfaced earlier this month when Google responded to a class action suit over the company’s unlawful manipulation of the Safari browser in which it circumvented privacy protections for the benefit of its’ ad placement. The US Federal Trade Commission had earlier  found the company guilty and levied a record $22.5 million fine.

UK law firm Olswang then took action against the company in the High Court, claiming breach of a number of rights under English law. Google responded with the argument that it was not bound by local law – even though it controls a UK subsidiary (a view that would be entirely unsustainable in the US). A similar argument was used by the company after it was found to be avoiding tax in the UK.

Google’s power and aggression has become more than just a phenomenon; it has become an outright danger to individual  rights and to sovereign law.