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The Privacy Policies of Internet Intermediaries: High-tech Responsibility in the Multi-stakeholder Nexus

Final Report Summary - INTERNET PRIVACY (The Privacy Policies of Internet Intermediaries: High-tech Responsibility in the Multi-stakeholder Nexus)

Internet intermediaries and multinational corporations (MNCs) play a dominant role in the European social media and search engine markets. They thus have a major impact on the privacy of European citizens (and people worldwide). In light of such, and given the ‘Right to be Forgotten Ruling’ handed down by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014, the project’s most general objective was to conceive and analyze how Google in particular, is currently seeking to shape understandings of Internet privacy and related considerations.
To achieve its objective, the project carried out a variety of theoretically informed empirical works. Content analysis was the primary method employed. The content analyzed as part of the project includes Google’s privacy policies; statements made by invited experts and panelists at the Google Advisory Council (GAC) public meetings that Google convened in seven European cities in 2014; and a number of key theoretical works that Google has published (e.g. The New Digital Age book by Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and his colleague Jared Cohen). In having primary responsibility for the design and undertaking of this significant and complex project, the researcher developed considerable expertise in content analysis. Moreover, the researcher has developed considerable and very-timely expertise with regard to the overlapping domains of Internet governance, corporate social responsibility, and organization and political theory.
The project has given rise to three main theoretical results and conclusions.
First, the project has demonstrated that MNCs and Internet intermediaries like Google are actors of wide-ranging political importance. In going beyond the tendency to limit the political analysis of MNCs to their formal relations with governmental and civil society actors (as much of the corporate political activity and corporate social responsibility literatures have tended to do), the project has demonstrated that the likes of Google have the capacity to use their multi-faceted technological, financial, and deliberative, resources, to shape political and moral norms like privacy in a more or less thorough-going fashion.
Second, the project has shown that MNCs and Internet intermediaries such as Google can respond to institutional pressures and processes in more complex and intricate ways than have hitherto been recognized. In particular, the project has shown that further to its having effectively complied with the Right to be Forgotten ruling of 2014 within Europe, Google has sought to undermine the rulings credentials and the possibility of its worldwide application with a global audience. Additionally, the project has shown that Google’s approach to the Right to be Forgotten ruling continues to remain relatively unchanged despite the extensive and often critical feedback it has received.
Third, the project has shown that Google’s theoretical understanding of the Internet, privacy, and global governance, has also remained more or less the same since 2010, despite its being prima facie contradicted by events associated with the WikiLeaks disclosures of 2010, and the NSA (National Security Agency) Files of 2013. Thus, and whereas the institution and organization theory literatures have tended to suggest that empirical changes lead to theoretical changes, the project suggests that theoretical creators can employ various means to try to keep their theoretical creations relatively intact during phenomenally troubling periods.
Beyond academia, the project can potentially impact upon, and be of utility to, European policy makers, civil-society actors and non-government organizations with a specific interest in Google, and with a more general interest in Internet governance, privacy, and corporate social responsibility. Most generally, the project suggests that close attention to the likes of Google, and to their multitudinous public engagement activities, provide a valuable means of making them increasingly accountable. More specifically, the project suggests that European Data Protection agencies, such as the CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’informatioque et des Libertés) for example, can use the popular opinion expressed at the GAC public meetings in 2014 to support any demands they wish to make with regard to the Right to be Forgotten ruling being applied to all of Google’s search engines. In this and other ways, then, the project can help European policy makers, as well as other parties, that are concerned to try to contain the more all-embracing ambitions of Google and its counterparts.