People

Google Docs is being used as a protest tool. That could put the company in a tight spot.

Black Lives Matter protesters are using Google Docs to share information. What if the government requests access to the company's data?

A Google Doc

Use of Google's productivity software on the frontline of the ongoing protests is making privacy advocates nervous.

Image: Protocol

When 17-year-old high school graduate Betsy saw the protests after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she decided something needed to be done. "I wanted to figure out a way to amplify black voices," she said. "I've seen the injustices they've been facing, and it'd just be wrong not to do anything about it." So she created a Google Doc and began compiling useful information.

It soon grew into a 22-page document with a linked table of contents, including subsections dedicated to petitions, donations, and how to contact officials, as well as other relevant resources. Like minds have found it extremely useful: It's been shared more than 10,000 times since May 27.

But such use of Google's productivity software on the front line of the ongoing battle over social justice is making privacy advocates nervous.

That's because Betsy isn't alone. Unlike recent protests in Hong Kong, where those on the streets coordinated their actions in closed Telegram groups and on secretive websites to avoid the watchful eye of the state, protesters involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and those supporting them digitally, have often relied on free and open channels of communication.

A multitude of Google Docs and Sheets have sprung up coordinating donations to the cause and ways to demonstrate solidarity. Some are chaotically created lists of email addresses, links and other information, compiled in a hurry by those wanting to help support the protests and raise awareness. Others are carefully formatted Google Sheets that provide a checklist of actions people can take — a to-do list of dozens of steps to combat systemic racism. All have been viewed by hundreds of people simultaneously at their peak.

In many cases, documents have been populated by using Google Forms — for instance, to collect data on donations to bail funds so organizations can match funding, or to collect signatures for a petition against Harvard University police.

"It's a huge problem," said Aral Balkan, a digital privacy activist. "Google is a surveillance capitalist — just like Facebook, Snapchat, etc. Surveillance and profiling are how these companies make their billions. They are not safe spaces." And, he added: "If [people are] using Google Forms, they should consider that Google has a record of everyone who participates and everything they contribute."

Alongside general skepticism about the way Big Tech collects and processes data for itself, there are also concerns about how the government could request access to data belonging to protestors. Documents recently uncovered by BuzzFeed News reportedly showed that the Justice Department had granted the Drug Enforcement Administration authority to "conduct covert surveillance" on those protesting the killing of George Floyd.

Compounding those concerns is the fact that the United States is at a key moment in surveillance reform.

"Timing is very crucial here because since March, Congress has been considering the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020, which would renew three surveillance authorities and add safeguards to protect our civil liberties," said Ashkhen Kazaryan, director of civil liberties at TechFreedom, a tech policy think tank.

"Since many of the surveillance provisions actually lapsed as Congress has failed to reauthorize and reform these authorities, no one can truly say what kind of surveillance tools and authorities would law enforcement agencies use to access protesters' data," added Kazaryan. However, she points out that the direction of travel, including the rights allegedly given to the DEA by the Justice Department, is enough to give pause. "Many of these agencies have a track record of disregarding the Fourth Amendment and our constitutional rights," she said.

The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

The situation also alarms Billy Easley, who works on tech and criminal justice policy at Americans for Prosperity, and is a former legislative counsel for Sen. Rand Paul. "What I'm worried about is the Department of Justice using existing authorities they have to gain access to people's metadata, internet browsing history, in the name of trying to quell riots and violence in these cities," he said. "They currently have the ability to do that, and I think there needs to be a concerted effort in Congress to prevent that from happening."

This could all put Google in a tough spot. Last weekend, it added a note to its homepage: "We stand in support of racial equality, and all those who search for it." And its CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted: "Today on U.S. Google & YouTube homepages we share our support for racial equality in solidarity with the Black community and in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery & others who don't have a voice. For those feeling grief, anger, sadness & fear, you are not alone."

It is plausible that it may soon need to balance that support with government requests.

Protocol asked Google whether it would refuse to hand over information about who accessed and inputted data into these documents if asked to do so by the U.S. government. Pointing to its policy for how the company deals with government requests for user information, Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, said: "We have a well-established process for managing requests from law enforcement for data about our users. We only respond to valid requests, seek to give notice to users, and we push back on overly broad requests to protect users' privacy."

Meanwhile, what do those who continue to use Google Docs as part of the protests make of all this? Nandini Mitra, a U.K.-based law student who created a to-do list for Black Lives Matters supporters, is aware of the risks of Google. "It's a data hoover," she said. But, she reckons, some things are worth giving up your data to a Silicon Valley giant for. "I guess I've made an implicit calculation of the risks and gains to be made. Google is so ubiquitous, it's everywhere, and it would be hard to make something that's accessible to everyone without using Google."

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins