Conroy attacks Google: full Senate transcript

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Conroy attacks Google: full Senate transcript
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CHAIR - We now move to program 1.2, Telecommunications, Online and Postal Services. We are waiting for Senator Ludlum, who indicated that he has questions here. We will start with Senator Fisher.

Senator FISHER -There was a story on the ABC News website recently that Google was trawling streets collecting wi-fi data, and there was a suggestion that in the process of collecting that data they somehow downloaded network connection contents of people's houses.

Senator Conroy - I do not think it was ‘somehow'; I think they set out to collect it.

Senator FISHER - Minister, given the concerns that have been raised about the potential privacy issues and the concerns that have been ventilated as to what use Google will put this information and for how long they will keep it or have their wonderful way with it, what do you propose to do about it?

Senator Conroy - I believe the Privacy Commissioner has written to them. I think they are now engaged in a conversation.

Senator FISHER - Did you ask her to do so?

Senator Conroy - No. The Privacy Commissioner is in a different portfolio.

Senator FISHER - That would not stop you asking.

Senator Conroy - I note that the German minister has referred it to the criminal authorities for illegal data collection.

Senator FISHER - For the same thing in Germany?

Senator Conroy - This has been worldwide. Google takes the view that they can do anything they want-they do not evil to themselves. I do have a little bit of information. You actually cut into an answer I was hoping to give, but I will take you through the information that I have.

It is possible that this has been the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies. After being caught out by European privacy commissioners, Google has admitted that their Streetview cars-the ones that drive down your street and photograph your house without your permission so that they can make it available worldwide for use in their Streetview product-has also been collecting information from people using wi-fi connections; that is, your personal data, including, potentially, emails. Welcome, Senator Ludlam. We are just filling in for you.

Senator FISHER - And connection equipment and so on.

Senator Conroy - All of that information. Ten privacy commissioners around the world recently wrote to Google about their concerns. Many privacy commissioners, including Australia's, are investigating Google for data breaches. Google have admitted to doing this and claim it was a mistake in the software code, meaning that it was actually quite deliberate; the code was collecting it.

Senator FISHER - Can you explain that?

Senator Conroy - The computer program that collects it was designed to collect this information.

Senator FISHER - Are you disputing Google's claim that it was inadvertent?

Senator Conroy - Yes. I am saying that they wrote a piece of code designed to do it.

Senator FISHER - So, it was deliberate in your view?

Senator Conroy - It is interesting to note that this claim that it was a mistake came only after the data protection authority in Germany asked to audit Google's data. They continually say publicly, ‘Trust us.' This comes on top of recent controversies relating to the Google Buzz product, which made public the details of the people users most emailed and chatted with on their social networking site.

I can fully explain the policies being adopted by a company like Google. In December 2009 their CEO, Eric Schmidt, told CNBC, ‘If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.' At the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona in February the same CEO falsely denied any privacy breach with Buzz. He stated, ‘People thought that somehow we were publishing their email addresses and private information, which was not true', when it was true. He said, ‘It was our fault that we did not communicate that fact very well, but the important thing is that no really bad stuff happens in the sense that nobody's personal information was disclosed.' I repeat that it was. Google Buzz exposed one user's location to her abusive ex-partner, and it was only after worldwide condemnation of Google that they actually apologised. People should not mistake the approach being taken by Google on a range of issues around the world.

Senator FISHER - Obviously there is little love lost between you and Google.

Senator Conroy - No, it is fair to say I am just chronicling the activities of Google worldwide. I have not finished yet.

Senator FISHER - I gathered not.

Senator Conroy - At the Abu Dhabi media summit-

Senator FISHER - I was about to beg to differ, because I am quite genuine in my question.

Senator LUDLAM - This is starting to sound really personal. Go ahead.

Senator Conroy - I am very pleased to note that you have arrived for me to finish my answer. At an Abu Dhabi media summit in March 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, ‘Google sees itself really differently from other companies, because we see ourselves as a company with a mission about information and not a mission about revenue or profits.' Yet at the third quarter earning call for Google on 15 October 2009, Eric Schmidt told Wall Street analysts on the phone hook-up, ‘We love cash.' Mr Schmidt, in December, said this-I noted this previously, but I am not sure that you heard this, Senator Ludlam, so I want to repeat it: ‘If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.'

Senator LUDLAM - You read that 30 seconds ago.

Senator Conroy - I was not sure if you were in the room when I read it the first time. Schmidt also absurdly claimed to be misunderstood over Google Buzz and he went on to say, ‘People thought that somehow we were publishing their email addresses and private information.' Again, I am not sure if you were here.

Senator LUDLAM - Yes, I was here.

Senator Conroy - Schmidt made the statement about how they were not really doing these things and the abusive ex-partner got someone's address. Schmidt said that after a civil liberties group had already issued a warning about Buzz's serious problems with private information and after Google's own spokesman, Todd Jackson, had said, ‘Google was very, very sorry for getting millions of users rightfully upset.' Google were also questioned at the Abu Dhabi media summit. Mr Schmidt was asked about the company's worrisome stash of private data on its users: ‘All this information that you have about us, does that scare anyone in the room?' The response from Mr Schmidt was: ‘Would you prefer someone else? Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?' Frankly, I think the approach taken by Mr Schmidt is a bit creepy.

Senator LUDLAM - Are you going to quote them on your filter, because I presume that is what this is all about?

Senator Conroy - I have not even got to the filters yet.

Senator FISHER - I have not finished my question yet either.

Senator Conroy - No, you have not. I have almost finished, so I thank you for your patience, Senator Fisher. This is a company that says ‘do no evil', but tries to pretend that it is not motivated by profit and that it knows best and ‘you can trust us' when it comes to privacy. Unfortunately there are no safeguards. You are dealing with company policy. There are more issues that I will come to when we get to YouTube later. When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, ‘Trust us.' They state on the website, ‘Trust us.'

Senator LUDLAM - Terrible!

Senator Conroy - They consider themselves to be above government. They consider that they are the appropriate people to make the decisions about people's privacy data, that they are perfectly entitled to drive the streets and collect private information by photographing over fences and collecting data/information. This is probably the single greatest breach in history of privacy. That is why so many governments around the world have reacted in the way they have to a company like Google.

Senator FISHER - So, you say they consider themselves above government. Are they above the Telecommunications Act?

Senator Conroy - Not in the slightest; not in this country.

Senator FISHER - Have you referred these actions for investigation as a potential breach of the Telecommunications Act?

Senator Conroy - As I said, the Privacy Commissioner has written to them seeking further information, and we will be liaising with the Privacy Commissioner to see where that gets to before we take any further action. We will be awaiting the Privacy Commissioner's-

Senator FISHER - Why, given that indictment? That is five minutes of estimates we will never get back.

Senator Conroy - The German government has already referred it. We will see what the Privacy Commissioner has to say, but we will be watching it very closely.

Senator FISHER - Why are you sitting back and watching? Why are you not referring the matter?

Senator Conroy - The Privacy Commissioner is the appropriate place to start this process.

Senator FISHER - Surely there are other aspects of the Telecommunications Act that could potentially have been breached by this behaviour, if it is as indictable as you suggest.

Senator Conroy - What I said was that Germany has described it as indictable. I did not say that we had. Let me be very clear about this. I did not say we had.

Senator FISHER - I was using a generic description of your downloading-your description of their behaviour.

Senator Conroy - No. What I said was that we would await the Privacy Commissioner's report.

Senator FISHER - Why?

Senator Conroy - It has already been referred in Germany.

Senator FISHER - Why await the Privacy Commissioner's report? Is privacy the only aspect that may have been violated by this?

Senator Conroy - We can take that on notice.

Senator FISHER - You have just given a diatribe of their behaviour.

Senator Conroy - I have described what has happened in other jurisdictions. You are talking about one specific instance. What I have said is that the Privacy Commissioner has already written to them and we will be awaiting what the Privacy Commissioner says to see if there are any breaches of Australia's laws.

Senator FISHER - You are hiding behind Karen Curtis?

Senator Conroy - I am not hiding behind anybody. She is engaged in her statutory obligations. That is her statutory obligation and she is pursuing them.

Senator FISHER - If the Privacy Commissioner concludes that, for example, there is no breach of privacy issues, what would you do then?

Senator Conroy - If there is no breach of privacy issues, there is nothing we can do. We will have conversations. As I said, we will take on notice the issue of whether or not there are any other breaches. We are happy to take that on notice, but at this stage the Privacy Commissioner is pursuing it.

Senator FISHER - My final question on notice is: why would you not, in any event, refer the matter for investigation for potential breach of the Telecommunications Act?

Senator Conroy - As I said, we will take that on notice and give you some information about that. At this stage the Privacy Commissioner has taken it forward and we will be coordinating with the Privacy Commissioner.

Senator FISHER - In your answer you inferred that there may be breaches of the Telecommunications Act outside privacy issues, did you not?

Senator Conroy - ACMA were here earlier. You could have asked ACMA if they thought there was a breach. I am happy to take that on notice for you and ask ACMA.

Senator FISHER - I am asking you, Minister.

Senator Conroy - As I said, I am happy to take that on notice and ask ACMA on your behalf.

Senator FISHER - Thank you.

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