In a recent article, the New York Times tells the story of a father who attempted to seek telemedicine treatment for his son amidst the coronavirus pandemic, sending photos of his son to the doctor for inspection at the request of the medical office. Google tagged the images as child abuse material, disabled his account, and reported him to the police.
The New York Times reports that during the pandemic, many healthcare practitioners introduced telemedicine options, performing consultations for patients via video calls, text messages, and photos.
The NYT tells the story of one man, simply named Mark to preserve his anonymity, that in February 2021 noticed that his son appeared to be suffering from a medical issue affecting his genitals which were swollen and painful. Mark’s wife called an advice nurse at their health care provider and scheduled an emergency consultation by video.
The nurse instructed Mark and his wife to send photos of the medical issue to the doctor ahead of time so that he could review them before the consultation. Mark and his wife did so, using their iPhone to take photos of their child’s genitals.
The doctor quickly diagnosed the issue and prescribed antibiotics which treated the problem. But just two days after taking the photos of his son, Mark received a notification on his phone informing him that his account had been disabled because of “harmful content” that was “a severe violation of Google’s policies and might be illegal.” A link titled “learn more” directed him to a list of possible reasons, including “child sexual abuse & exploitation.”
Mark immediately filled out a form requesting a review of Google’s decision and explaining his son’s medical issue. But quickly Mark found that not only had he lost access to his emails, contact information for friends and former colleagues, and documentation of his son’s first years of life, but also his Google Fi account shut down which meant that he had to get a new phone number with another carrier.
A few days later, Google responded that it would not be reinstating his account. Later, Mark learned that Google had also flagged a video he made and the San Francisco Police Department had begun to investigate him.
The NYT writes:
In December 2021, Mark received a manila envelope in the mail from the San Francisco Police Department. It contained a letter informing him that he had been investigated as well as copies of the search warrants served on Google and his internet service provider. An investigator, whose contact information was provided, had asked for everything in Mark’s Google account: his internet searches, his location history, his messages and any document, photo and video he’d stored with the company.
The search, related to “child exploitation videos,” had taken place in February, within a week of his taking the photos of his son. Mark called the investigator, Nicholas Hillard, who said the case was closed. Mr. Hillard had tried to get in touch with Mark but his phone number and email address hadn’t worked.
“I determined that the incident did not meet the elements of a crime and that no crime occurred,” Mr. Hillard wrote in his report. The police had access to all the information Google had on Mark and decided it did not constitute child abuse or exploitation.
Mark asked if Mr. Hillard could tell Google that he was innocent so he could get his account back. “You have to talk to Google,” Mr. Hillard said, according to Mark. “There’s nothing I can do.”