“Don’t be evil” — the first sentence of Google’s “Code of Conduct” — has served as the technology company’s corporate motto since its earliest days. But given Google’s role in the arrest late last month of a Houston man on child pornography charges, perhaps we’ve been misreading it. Perhaps the motto is aimed at its customers, as in, “Don’t you be evil or we’ll have you busted.”
Google, obviously, isn’t the first Internet company to alert investigators of a user who might be transmitting or be in possession of child pornography images. Since the late 1990s, the law has required service providers to report apparent violations of child pornography laws. In 2004, for example, AOL provided a tip that resulted in a child pornography conviction. In 2007, Yahoo took similar action that helped earn a child pornography defendant a 16-year sentence. So far, the courts have rejected Fourth Amendment challenges to these prosecutions, and are likely to continue to do so. No credible sources have appeared to denounce the prosecutions as overkill, and I doubt if any will.
The Houston bust, in which John Henry Skillern allegedly sent explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email, comes a year after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond renewed his company’s commitment, which he dated to 2006, to expunge child pornography from the Web and identify its traffickers. As the company’s email policies state, “Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery. If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities. …”
In its efforts, Google has funded groups that search for the images and, with other companies, has built a shared database of digital fingerprints (via “hashing“) of the images. These fingerprints allow Google and other companies, such as Microsoft and Facebook, to “trawl” accounts for apparent violations of the child pornography laws. The hashing technology, it should be noted, is only as reliable as the database. If you were to create new child pornography this afternoon and load it on to the Web, Google’s algorithms would not automatically detect it as child pornography until somebody identified it, fingerprinted it, and fed it to the database.
Google assuages users who worry it might be scouring their Gmail accounts for evidence of other potential crimes. It told Business Insider this week it does not do that — even though its updated-in-April terms of service leave it plenty of latitude to glean whatever it likes from your account. “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails),” the terms of service state. “This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”