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Is Google's New Side Hustle Actually A Win For Privacy Advocates?


Image via Financial Times

Google arguably has more information on you than any other company in the world. Shares of the search giant's parent, Alphabet, surpassed a $1 trillion valuation last week. With a net income of more than $30 billion on sales of nearly $137 billion last year, what difference would a few more bucks really make to Alphabet?

Well depending on who you ask, Google's latest side hustle is yet another way for the company to rake in money or surprisingly, taking a stand for privacy advocates. 

According to the New York Times, Google has started to charge law enforcement and government agencies for legal demands telling the company to provide data such as emails, location information and search histories. A subpoena will require agencies to fork over $45 to Google, a wiretap runs for $60 and a search warrant will cost agencies a whopping $245. 

A spokesperson for Google told the New York Times "the fees were intended in part to help offset the costs of complying with warrants and subpoenas." Federal laws allow companies to charge agencies reimbursement fees, but is typically not done by tech companies for fear they will be accused of profiting off of legal requests for user data. Facebook does not seek reimbursement, while Twitter and Microsoft decline to say whether they do. Telecommunication companies such as Cox Communications and Verizon Communications have charged for such services for years.

During the first half of 2019, Google received more than 75,000 requests for data, with one-third of them coming from the United States. The total equates to about a 50% increase in data requests compared to the same period in 2018. For comparison, Microsoft and Facebook received 24,175 and 128,000 requests for data, respectively, over the same time period in 2019.


A Google spokesperson said that "there was no specific reason the fees were announced this month and that they had been under consideration for some time." Google will not seek reimbursement in cases such as child safety investigations and life-threatening emergencies.


However, some believe the move by Google may actually be a win for privacy advocates. Their argument is by charging agencies a reimbursement fee, it could potentially cause the agencies to not request data as often.


"None of the services were designed with exfiltrating data for law enforcement in mind," Al Gidari, a lawyer who previously represented Google, said. Gidari, who is currently

the consulting privacy director at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, added "The actual costs of doing wiretaps and responding to search warrants is high, and when you pass those costs on to the government, it deters from excessive surveillance."


While Google will likely never go into the full details of its decision to begin seeking reimbursement fees for data requests, it seems unlikely the motive is driven by the money it could generate. Perhaps Google, which has for years seen its reputation deteriorate amidst privacy concerns, had made the move with the goal of deterring law enforcement and government agencies from continuing to flood the company with data requests.


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