Why Google sucks: it rips off writers, and tells lies about you, too.


A few days ago I published jazz scholar Ted Gioia‘s letter to the Library of Congress, “Writer to Library of Congress: ‘Pay us!” But there was one provocative argument in the article I didn’t cite, because I didn’t understand Ted’s contention that Google is the biggest thief of all. So I wrote back to ask Ted. Here’s what he said:

Google makes most of its money linking to content that it doesn’t pay for. There has been a huge shift of advertising revenues from newspapers (that create the content) to Google (which is a kind of parasite, living off the content of others).

I didn’t spell that out in the article. But I thought it was important to mention—because Google is the single biggest reason why earnings for writers have collapsed in recent years.

Ted’s not a Google fan (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Here are the paragraphs in full, from Ted’s 2014 Daily Beast article, “Rich People Want You to Work for Free”:

The worst offender, however, is not the government, but Google—a company that has done more to impoverish musicians and other creative professionals than any entity on the face of the planet. Google was once a struggling start-up with little money to spend, but that was a long, long time ago … before the music died. In case you didn’t know, let me point out that Google is now one of the most profitable businesses in history—with a market cap of almost $400 billion and more than $50 billion in cash in its coffers. But what started out as a search engine has evolved into a search-and-destroy machine.

When I ask people why they don’t pay for a music subscription service or (heaven forbid!) purchase physical albums, the most common response is: Why should I? I can get almost any song I want for free on YouTube. I’ve even had people laugh at me for my naïveté in considering any other way of consuming music. And who can blame these freeloaders from taking advantage of a “free” (if sometimes legally dubious) source for almost any song ever recorded? But the highly paid Google execs who run YouTube need to be at the top of any list of the culprits who destroyed the economic conditions for musical artists.

In a fair world, Google would be required to share advertising revenues when a user clicks on a search engine result linking to a newspaper or periodical.  A 50/50 split would be reasonable (and, frankly, 50% is very generous to Google, which is only an intermediary not a creator — what we once called a ‘middleman’). This would bring billions of dollars into journalism, and provide much needed financial support for writers.  And this kind of revenue sharing is entirely fair and validated by past history. Years ago, the government decided that radio stations and retail shops playing music were not just passive intermediaries, but needed to pay for these rights. We need a similar structural solution for the written word.

Google is like a bully who controls the door to a restaurant, and wants to siphon off all the money the previously went to the cooks, servers, food suppliers, etc. Or imagine if some company found a way of owning the sidewalk leading up to your home, and then tried to monetize access. What’s going on in writing in the current day is no different. Just because Google found a fancy high tech way of controlling the path people take to access a newspaper article doesn’t mean it can bleed the newspaper industry dry.

I have my own bone to pick with Google. They have a so-called “Knowledge Graf” that surfaces in every search for a prominent person’s name. It pops up with information that is not verified with the source or, really, anywhere else. Nor are they particular about who qualifies as a “public person” – does a very private author such as myself merit having personal information exposed internationally? Have I forfeited my privacy in the same way a Senator or Beyoncé become “public figure”? My memory of journalism law suggests not. I don’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai: I bet he gets to keep his privacy. (Photo: Maurizio Pesce)

They are profiting from slipshod aggregators such as Spokeo, Instantcheckmate, Intellius, and others that collect information on current and former spouses, sisters, brothers, birthdates, places of residence, arrests and traffic violations, and then erps it onto the worldwide web without any factchecking (for example, some of these sites list a Missouri as a former residence; I’ve never even been there). Google vacuums it up, publishing it with a reach The Washington Post would envy. Of course, they say they are not “publishing,” but rather disseminating “free” information, but how is this online publication different from, say, any online journal? As a journalist, I know what would happen to me if I published information from people from one of these sloppy websites without independently checking – after all, your info is shoveled in with everyone else who shares your name or part of your name. Why do they get away with it?

It’s gathered by ‘bots, and published by ‘bots. And no single human being will take responsibility. For, example, the possibilities of identity theft.

Once notified of the error, they defiantly refuse to remove fake information, however damaging it may be to one’s life or one’s career. (They have, with impunity pushed me into my retirement years – not helpful for a freelance writer, or any woman over 50. Age discrimination, anyone? They also list me as a literary critic for The San Francisco Chronicle – I haven’t written a word there for almost a decade. I could go on and on.) I’ve told them its wrong. They persist as if it is true. Malice? Perhaps not. But certainly a willful disregard for truth. In old-fashioned terms, it’s called lying.

I have spent hours and weeks contacting agencies to remove my listings. I have spent hours talking to Google employees – probably none were over 25 years of age, and they all act powerless within the diasporic organization they work for. None will give their last name. None will give a direct dial phone number so that you can contact them again. Or an email address (if you email back, you either get a rotating roster of kids with whom to discuss your privacy details, or else you get an error message). I have talked to lawyers. I have asked Google for the address of its Privacy Department, and the name of its director. The Kafkaesque organization that is so quick to share information about me is suddenly all shy about sharing simple corporate information that is easily available on most responsible business websites.

Of course, they have a way that you can manage your own site: send them a selfie with your face (not blurry) with government-issued identification. Every line of your driver’s license or passport must be clear and legible to them. They want to be sure, you see, that you are really you – even though they could contact me via my gmail address issued by Google, my Google Plus account, or even this blog. I wish they had been so impeccable about facts when publishing information for worldwide dissemination.

They miss the point, of course: they have to prove their information is correct. It is not my responsibility to provide them with correct information that I don’t want published anyway (let alone my passport number).

In any case, having mismanaged information about me already and violated my privacy, they wish me to give them more information – for example, my height, weight, eye color, hair color on my driver’s license. Oh, they’ll destroy it afterward, they promise. Sure. That’s what Cambridge Analytica said. Google is a big class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.

Google. You suck big time.

Update from Twitter – 7/22: 

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7 Responses to “Why Google sucks: it rips off writers, and tells lies about you, too.”

  1. Melissa Green Says:

    Jaw-dropping, Cynthia, but not surprising—an amoral monolith running roughshod over us, without compunction, neither asking or verifying a single iota. ‘GREED’ nails it exactly. They are held to no standards, have no oversight, and can pick not only one’s pocket but one’s essential selfhood, one’s history, one’s creative output. Privacy has gone the way of the dodo. Thanks for this. It is enraging, nauseating and terrifying. This damnable geni isn’t going back in its bottle.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you, Melissa. My sentiments exactly. But what can we do to fight back?

  3. Paul Marangoni Says:

    Here’s what we can do: stop using google to search, don’t use an android phone and Don’t visit YouTube. Screw google!

  4. Jeff S. Says:

    Cynthia, I’m seeing an increasing number of articles along the lines of this blog post: Twitter or AirBNB suspending users based on seemingly random criteria, with no accountability; or Facebook bots making bizarre decisions about what constitutes “offensive” content, with no humans to answer for their decisions; or Paypal closing users’ accounts without any explanation–and none required under the terms of service. I suspect the best way to fight back is to encourage more people to tell stories like yours. Most of these services are more fragile than they seem, dependent as they are on public whims. It may be possible, over time, to cause a shift in public thinking that forces these companies to quit it with the crappy artificial intelligence and invest in vast, old-fashioned customer-service call centers instead. The threat of regulation might be nice, too.

    We can also all help spread another truth: that (as you point out) the information these companies are harvesting and selling is largely garbage. I’m a politically moderate white guy pushing 50, but in its advertising profile of me, Facebook thinks I’m a very liberal African American! To my girlfriend’s amusement, Facebook also shows me an implausibly wide range of dating-service ads, since it can’t tell if I’m gay or straight. I’d like to see what would happen if these companies were so relentlessly and publicly confronted with the truth about the unreliability of the information they sell that it became impossible to deny.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I would welcome hearing from people with similar stories. Let’s share them. Legal safeguards are going up to protect privacy in Europe. Even California last month passed some of the stiffest protections in the country – I sent the Google staff the links, in one of my myriad messages. It was probably read by a 25-year-old who was in a hurry to have lunch at the new burrito place.

    It would be nice if public pressure could change the attitude that it’s hunky-dory for Big Brother Google to know everything about me, including my shoe size. But I have a feeling only money talks their language. And so a big class action lawsuit by people who have had their privacy violated or suffered personal injury is the only thing likely to make inroads into their robotic thinking.

  6. Jeff S. Says:

    Oh, I’m totally with you; I just think swaying public opinion would expedite lawsuits and legislation.

    Did you see that some economist wrote a piece the other day for Forbes arguing that public libraries should be replaced with Amazon bookstores? The backlash was so fierce that Forbes appears to have removed the piece from their site. The discontent is definitely there to be tapped. The teacher in my household recently took an interest in a long article about Silicon Valley’s use of psychologists to make its products as addictive as possible; their methods are not unlike those of the tobacco industry. Word is spreading, and in the long term, I’m hopeful: There’s a growing awareness abroad in the land that Silicon Valley is not our friend.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Fascinating, Jeff. Thanks for sharing!