The Department of Justice and eleven states have filed an anti-trust suit alleging Google unlawfully monopolizes internet search markets through contracts with fellow tech and communications giants that make Google the default search engine on most computers and smartphones.

Is the suit politically motivated? Of course. We’re two weeks from the 2020 election, all eleven participating states voted for Trump in 2016, and Google has become a target of right-wing indignation for supposed violations of conservative free speech rights. More red meat for the base.

That said, and despite being a satisfied Google customer, I sympathize with the lawsuit. Like the few other things the Trump Administration has done right (such as reconsideration of foreign policy toward North Korea and China), it correctly identifies a problem, even if the response makes you smack your head.

Way back when I was UC Berkeley’s risk manager, I participated in contract negotiations with Google. From that experience I can tell you it didn’t get where it is by being nice.

In the early 2010s, when the financial crash was still crippling state budgets, the Berkeley campus realized the cost of maintaining and securing its email system was growing prohibitive. The IT people recommended outsourcing to Google, which had a track record of smoothly handling volume and foiling hackers. So the talks began.

I’m simplifying, but essentially Google wanted access to all data it received from UC Berkeley, and if Google used that data in a manner damaging to the campus, tough. The “tough” part violated Regents’ Standing Order 100.4.dd.9, which I had chief responsibility for enforcing. Eventually we compromised: Google would abide by our privacy and liability terms for six core apps, including email, and Google’s terms would prevail for sixty-odd consumer apps.

We had an easy solution to the risk posed by the consumer apps: we barred access to them. But then Google dangled consumer apps such as Analytics and AdWords in front of campus users, and many, including faculty conducting potentially sensitive research, found them impossible to resist. We continued to deny access, explaining that terms of use for the consumer apps violated university policy. But users worked around us by creating personal Google accounts, transferring their university data to those personal accounts, and accessing the consumer apps privately.

Which meant we were losing control of the data we had worked so hard to protect.

I had to make a lose-lose decision. I could insist on enforcing the Regents’ Standing Order, which users would continue to defy, shifting ever more data to the exploitable consumer apps. Or I could let our IT people turn on the consumer apps, which violated the Standing Order, but allowed us to find out what data Google was gaining access to so we had half a chance of exerting internal control.

I went with the latter option: basically, as long as the data weren’t overly sensitive, we would turn on the consumer apps when requested. Knowing this violated university policy, at first I informed only our chief campus counsel (Chris Patti) and the few IT folks involved, all of whom were supportive. Then, after the deed was done, I confessed to my boss I had violated policy, an act I felt was consistent with my responsibility — reducing risk — but could nonetheless subject me to disciplinary action.

All because of Google’s insatiable appetite for data and its devious, if legal, efforts to obtain it.

That’s not the same thing the Justice Department complains about in its suit. But it gives a flavor of the attitude and tactics that make Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and other tech behemoths as malignant as they are beneficial. So yeah, the suit is political theater unlikely to produce constructive results. But I hope it proves a first a step toward breaking up these economic Godzillas.

Some problems never go away. This cropped image of an undated political poster is from one of populist William Jennings Bryan’s campaigns — he ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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