By Stephen Bryen
Some Google Docs users found themselves shut out of their accounts this week, being told that they have “violated google’s terms of service.”
After some back and forth, Google finally responded that they made “made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs.” (Italics added.)
What does this mean? It means that Google must be reading your documents for content other than commercial advertising.
There are, of course reasons for some censorship of public information such as terrorist-inspired literature that has appeared on Facebook or Twitter. For example, Twitter and now (reluctantly) Facebook are removing some terrorist literature. Of course they are much more enthusiastic about censoring stuff in China, because there the issue is over money in their pockets from China and not security or freedom. In fact it is exactly freedom they are collaborating in canceling.
But in the current case we don’t know what Google’s software (e.g., they call it “code”) is doing or not. Only that everything you write is read by Google and potentially subject to their censorship (what they term “abusive” ).
This raises a host of serious Constitutional questions. So far in U.S. Courts Google has been able to get away with scanning emails, on the grounds that they offer users a free service and they benefit from it by directing advertisers (who pay them) for information on a user’s preferences, as detected in the email scans.
But it is more complicated, since emails can be scanned for anything such as political opinions, membership in certain organizations or religious attitudes and affiliations. Free speech is supposed to be protected by the Constitution, but it is not protected by Google, even when the “speech” is an email from one person to another.
In effect, Google is a huge spy operation.
There are a number of sensitive issues that arise.
The first is that what was argued in the courts was shaped so that the Judge or Judges thought Google was just doing “plain old” commercial advertising, as for new cars or a new kitchen sink. But the Judge would probably not have guessed that some of the scanned stuff may have been going to political parties and interest groups and have nothing to do with commercial product advertising. And could be sold anywhere in the world! Google has not disclosed who it sells information to, so we can only (at best) surmise. But it stands to reason that if they are scanning your personal views on various subjects and by canceling service it means they have a commercial reason to do this (make money off your opinions) or (but not necessarily mutually exclusively), maybe they are selling the same information to the government or governments.
Guessing about this is totally unsatisfactory. It smells, but we don’t know enough.
Google needs to explain itself.
Congress is holding some hearings now, but whether they will really take on the big Constitutional issue is not clear.
Maybe the Courts can help. They need to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of collecting and selling sensitive content not related to normal commercial advertising. At the end of the day, letting technology erase our Constitutional rights is a very bad thing.