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'Don't be evil' a struggle for Google


’Men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be.’

- George Orwell

Don't be evil a struggle for GoogleMost internet users depend on — and love — Google, the search engine with a sense of humour. Who else but Google would have cartoon athletes jumping through their ‘hoops’ on the product banner during the Commonwealth Games. However, dependency and trust are different things and the implications for privacy in an online world are grave, and some are starting to feel uncomfortable about the power Google has over their lives. As a result Google is at the centre of a debate about the power of technology and the responsibility this brings with it.

It might help to look back at the development of search engines. When people first started using the internet, the choice of search engines available was broad and people’s choices were largely idiosyncratic. In 2007, the equation is somewhat different. Other search engines are available but Google is pre-eminent.

Since its incorporation in September 1998 Google has grown at a staggering rate.

Hitwise statistics show that Google had 64 per cent of the search market in March 2007. Month-on-month, and year-on-year, the company is increasing its market share at the expense of every other search engine.

The growth of Google has mirrored the growth of Microsoft in the 1980s and 1990s to some extent. Microsoft has for years been seen as the "evil empire" because of its size and reach. While a consenus on whether Google is handling its burgeoning power has not been reached yet — but dark grumblings are beginning to emerge from civil liberties groups.

Google’s corporate motto is 'Don’t be evil'.

At first glance, the company seems impossibly benign. It has introduced a range of products and services that have quickly been taken up by users. Google desktop, Documents and Spreadsheets, Videos, and now YouTube, Earth, Maps, Gmail, News, Scholar, Translate, Book Search, Blogger, Picasa and GTalk are just some of the products free for anyone to use.

This munificence seems decidedly "un-evil", and stands in stark contrast to Microsoft’s "user pays" model. Free products might mask the fact that as Google has grown, but it is a fact that choice for users has shrunk.

Google derives its primary income from text advertising, a field that it dominates. These ads populate millions of websites. In April 2007, Google purchased Double Click, one of the leading display (pictures, as opposed to text) advertisers on the internet. The deal ensures Google’s continued pre-eminence in the advertising market place.

There is nothing inherently evil about advertising. The problem is that online advertising can lead to information being revealed about users. Each time someone clicks on an ad, Google, like most internet advertisers, tracks that click, and learns something more about individual users' surfing habits.

It works like this: when a user uses Gmail, for example, a series of ads is displayed to the right of the email. Google’s servers (anonymously, we are told) scan the email, analyse the agglomeration of words in the text, and decide on the most relevant ads to display. This information, cumulatively, is invaluable.

When Gmail first began in 2004, there were howls of protest over the scanning of email to provide text ads. The company’s blithe response was that ‘computers’ would not read the emails, nor monitor them.

The "Trust me" approach that the company seems to adopt at times has not endeared it to critics. As the Economist recently noted, 'Google's business model assumes that people will entrust it with ever more information about their lives, to be stored in the company's "cloud" of remote computers.' It’s quite an assumption to make.

All of the information that one enters into Google is kept on Google servers. This can include search history, email, ads clicked on, and now documents and photos. The rumoured "Gphone" could extend this to an individual’s location, most-called numbers, and favourite pizzeria.

Possession of all this information gives power. As the company expands, and its power, so should its policies to safeguard users' privacy.

However, Google's policies do not always keep pace with its growing clout. Google has, for example, reached a deal with China’s censors to block certain content. China is notorious for monitoring and regulating its citizens’ web usage. If it were to obtain information about individuals searching for ‘banned’ subjects, the implications for the individual could be grave. While the Chinese government is doubtless pleased with the deal, what protections are in place for the individual?

The official Google Blog recently announced that it will make server logs anonymous after 18-24 months. These logs can tie search histories to individual users and allow them to be identified. While previously the information had been held indefinitely, it is still worth remembering that much of what we do on the internet is not as anonymous as we think.

Google’s record of protecting users’ anonymity is actually quite good compared to other organisations. But in an age in which governments are increasingly interested in (and able to monitor) what we read, who we chat to, and what we purchase, privacy safeguards will become increasingly important. One cannot help but feel that more transparency is needed from Google. 'Don’t be evil' does not suffice, as guiding policy, for a $23 billion company.



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Existing comments

I really agree with what you have said here James. Also to note is the introduction of iGoogle (http://www.google.com.au/ig?hl=en) which allows the user to personalise Google, through the use of their gMail log in... Undoubtedly this ties in with all the information they have for the user with gMail and then corresponds that to a search history, web history etc. This is very powerful information. Something to consider.

NewPug | 06 September 2007  

V.good article james ,like the touch of adding the " alter wine " as the choice of advertising . Hope my contact isn't invaisive you are doing a job that will have a good effect on the community .

michael bell | 06 September 2007  

I think my e-mail does not go through Google although I do use it for searches. Does that mean the above report does not apply to me?

Mary Hahn | 06 September 2007  

For a fascinating discussion of search engines and the role of Google, John Batelle's "The Search" "How Google and its Rivals rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture". Nicholas Brealey Publishing Boston & London. London 2005 makes for great reading. The cover alone is captivating.

Clive Monty | 06 September 2007  

Marketing products to people who are likely to be interested in them is not a bad thing per se. However, suppliers of products and services do not generally care who their customers are and therefore will often seek to manipulate people to purchase products not useful to the buyers. That is the problem with the hoarding of personal data by the likes of Google and any other web company out there who wants to. What concerns me more is the data that ISPs must have and what they are doing with it. Couldn't they trace every single site visited, cf sites visited through the Google sites, by any user to whom they supply an internet connection? When I say 'they', it really means individuals working for the companies, which includes disgruntled and corrupt employees. Given the known lack of integrity of telcos and their employees, shouldn't this worry us even more? The irony of the problem we always have is that these companies plead privacy when we want to see what information they have about all of us.

Joel Burstyner | 07 September 2007  

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