Providing users with high quality, accurate and trusted information is sacrosanct to us.
Sundar Pichai, CEO Google
US Congress 11 December 2018
When hackers accessed the Twitter accounts of some of the world’s most famous people last month, it was front page news the world over. Hacking the accounts of people like Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos was bound to create a security panic. The fact that the hack, promoting a bitcoin scam, seemed to be enabled from the inside, made it even more scary. If the accounts of the world’s most famous people aren’t safe, who is?
While the world was scandalised by the Twitter hack, here in Australia, a lesser known bitcoin scam was being pedalled on the internet. In this case, no hack was required. The scammers simply purchased ads on Google’s ad network and Google happily enabled the spread of the scam with ads on popular websites like CNN, Politico and others.
At the heart of the scam was the fraudulent use of the image of Australian business celebrity, Dick Smith, endorsing a bitcoin get-rich-quick-scheme. Fake endorsements from mining magnate Twiggy Forrest, and media personality Waleed Aly were used earlier in the year to spruik a similar scam in Australia.
It’s not widely known, but Google’s pervasive ad network services most major publishers around the globe. There’s a fair chance that any ad you look at on any website, will be served up by, and profiting, Google. It’s one of the areas of Google’s vast market power currently under review by governments around the world. It was this network that provided the backbone connecting internet users with the bitcoin scam. Google’s ad network directed users to fake websites that looked credible copying popular sites like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and others.
There have been a number of references to the scam in the press which has also been served on Facebook. I’ve not seen any reference to the role of Google in propagating the scam – although a number of Australian victims have lost thousands of dollars.
Australia’s ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has been conducting a broad investigation of Google and the tech giants in recent years. Yet I have seen no evidence of governments or regulators taking steps to hold the Silicon Valley giant accountable for these long-running scams. Surely the eradication of such scams should be a priority for governments.
The problem of Google enabled scams is rampant in the travel industry too. Impostor airlines buy ad space in Google search results hoping to attract a small percentage of clicks to their fake websites – usually a replica of the real airline website – and defraud travellers.
In my other home, Vietnam, I found these scammers bringing profits to Google and themselves at the expense of travellers. Vietnam’s budget airline Vietjet is widely scammed by third parties copying its website with URL’s like vietjets.com.vn, vietjetonlines.vn. Ads for the impostors appear at the top of Google’s search for Vietjet and direct Google search users to fake airline website made to look like Vietjet. The scam would be especially effective in Vietnam where English language airline names would likely be confusing to Vietnamese speaking travellers.
Google sells its top search space to another fake airline for users looking for the website of the national carrier Vietnam Vietnam Airlines.
Google is more than a passive enabler of these scams. Google presents the ads at the top of its search results which are barely distinguishable from the real “organic” search results. It’s very easy for consumers to be snared especially the elderly and the vulnerable who are less internet savvy.
Governments are guilty of gross negligence when it comes to protecting the public from such scams on the mainstream internet. Google has been exposed for profiting from scams for years with little government action in Australia and elsewhere. If web giants like Google and Facebook were subject to the same commonsense regulation and accountability that governs most businesses, these scams would quickly disappear.
The stubborn pervasiveness of scams over many years proves the unaccountable, cynical rottenness at the heart of Google’s (and Facebook’s) core ad business. Most businesses are accountable for things they do. Google’s capacity to maintain its reputation and its grubby business model in spite of the harm it causes is a feat more impressive than any of its technological accomplishments.