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These days all the young kids love Google. All the older kids too actually. Heck, pretty much everybody loves Google. I don’t.

A little bit of (my own) history

Sure, I used Google for years. Started somewhere in 1999, after having been a happy AltaVista user. At the time, there were no doubts Google had made some major breakthroughs in search. So of course I switched to Google. And then, there was this other nice side to it: it was the new kid on the block, a nice little company, very far from any corporate behemoth.

Nowadays however, it is in my view the most dangerous corporation on the planet, and definitely much worse than any corporate behemoth I might have worried about in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. And it is absolutely adored by everyone, with the most vocal lovers being people who probably don’t even recall a time before Google.

What does Google do exactly?

Google does search, obviously. It also, and this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Provides hosted email (Gmail)
  • Provides maps & geolocalisation (Google maps)
  • Provides hosted RSS feed management (Google Reader)
  • Provides an operating system (Android)
  • Provides a web browser (Chrome)
  • Provides an office productivity suite (Google docs)

A comparison point

Now, the fact a company provides lots of services is not a bad thing of course. Rather the contrary. The issue is with what puts Google apart from most other players in the same markets. I’ll contrast with Microsoft here, but the argument holds when contrasting with many other companies.

You see, a universal fact about companies is that they want your money – and there’s certainly nothing objectionable to that. What makes companies different from one another, is how they seek to get your money.

Microsoft is interested in your workflow (I see raised eyebrows). The way Microsoft wants to make itself valuable to you, and hence entice you into giving them money, is by defining how you work. What they want, is to make sure that every time you have a task to carry out, you will use (and hopefully pay for) a Microsoft product. Want to use a computer? Here’s Windows for you. Want to write a document or make some calculations? Here’s Office. Email? Outlook/Exchange. Build internal collaboration in your company? SharePoint. Find something? Bing. Play a video game? Xbox.

What matters to Microsoft is what you do. Not exactly the specifics of what you do – they couldn’t care less whether you’re writing internal memos or the next great American novel in MS Word – but how you do it, what tasks are involved.

And then it will monetize those tasks. This can be done directly by making you pay for software, or indirectly. In the indirect method, you get something free, say, internet search. Well, it just so happens that the tight integration of the whole suite of free applications with other paying applications makes said paying applications more attractive.

Never said this monetization of free apps was so effective mind you, but that’s their strategy. They’re interested in your tasks, your workflow.

Back to Google

Now Google provides pretty much the same products and services as Microsoft. So their model is pretty similar, right?

Wrong. Couldn’t be more different.

Google’s revenue comes, nearly exclusively, from advertisement. For all analytical purposes, Google can be seen as an advertisement firm. And ever since the sector came into existence, advertisers have only ever been interested in one thing.

Your data.

Who you are. What you do. Why you do it. How much money that brings you. What books you read. What you like. What you don’t like.

They want to know everything about you.

For those who aren’t following, the reason they want this is to be able to target their ads to you in the most efficient way possible, in order to maximize clicks on the ads, and thus maximize advertising revenue.

It just so happens that Google has all that information on you. After all:

  • It can read you email (Gmail)
  • It knows where you are and where you like to go (Google maps)
  • It knows what you like and are interested in (Google search and Reader)
  • It knows what you do and what data you generate (Google apps)
  • It could know how much relative time you spend on any task (Android)

 

This is an advertisement’s agency ultimate goal.

It just so happens that this also any totalitarian state’s wet dream come true.

Don’t be evil!

Ah yes, the famous unofficial motto of Google is “don’t be evil”. That should be reassuring, right?

Well, I don’t know about you, but that motto, if anything, makes me worry even more. That somebody in a corporate environment could even consider that a motto speaks volumes. Let me give you an example.

What would you think about one of your kid’s teachers telling you his main goal in his work is “don’t rape the kids”? Would you be reassured? Or very much worried that somebody needs to state the obvious like that to exorcise some inner compulsion?

I feel the same about Google.

The track record

The good news is, as far as I’m aware, Google hasn’t yet launched into massive scale exploitation of the data it has at it’s disposal, nor has it transformed into some evil big brother.

Yet.

There are some worrying trends, and not only based on the sheer amount of data Google has at it’s disposal.

Google has already been actively seeking collaboration with government for years. And not just for nice stuff, either, for war. Yup, all that nifty Google earth technology has already been purposefully adapted for warfare. That means killing people. It doesn’t get much more evil than that in my book.

Google is also keen on collaborating with the NSA. Oh sure, in this case the aim is that the NSA help Google secure it’s network and work against cybercrime, and not that NSA access Google’s data. But as arguably the organisation with the largest wealth of information on people, Google collaborating with a spying agency makes me nervous.

Oh yeah, and by the way, isn’t it just a tad worrying that Google’s data repositories apparently need securing? So these guys have all your data, but can’t protect it? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s what triggered the whole China debacle recently. Actually, China deserves a section of it’s own.

The China thing

People are so busy lauding Google’s courage for pulling out of China these days, that they tend to forget what really happened.

In 2006, Google readily complied with Chinese requests to self-censor it’s contents. They did it in a heartbeat.

Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think it’s better for oppressed people to get some access to information rather than none at all, so in the long run, I believe Google’s move there was for the best. But what I found worrying was Google’s eagerness to go and adapt their “don’t be evil” motto to fit it’s actions. Far from demonstrating they were a principled company, Google showed it’s principles were highly negotiable based on what they felt was needed at a precise moment in time.

Then, recently, their Chinese infrastructure got hacked into. Fearing for their interests, they pulled out of China. If you bought into Google’s spin that this was because they had a change of heart about Chinese censorship, you’re a fool.

This last event is telling in two ways. First, it confirms that Google really doesn’t care about what is evil or not. If providing censored content was less evil than providing none in 2006, this remains so in 2010. So clearly, it’s all about their own interest, and not whatever is evil.

Second, it shows Google is not all that good at securing it’s data. And that’s downright terrifying. Because even if Google doesn’t do anything bad it has with the data it has collected, if this falls into the wrong hands (especially governmental ones), we’re in for some very bad trouble. Think 1984.

In a nutshell

Google has exactly the kind of data necessary to make an Orwellian hell come true. It has proven that it’s corporate culture is anything but principled, and more than willing to cooperate with governments, including for nefarious purposes such as killing people. On top of that, it has proven unable to secure the very sensitive data it has access to.

If despite all this you are still entrusting your data to Google, I guess you really love Big Brother.

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4 Comments

  1. “Don’t be evil!”

    I believe (but, I admit, do not know for sure) that this motto was honest in the early days of Google—in particular as a reaction to the likes of Microsoft.

    What has happened since (or, ultimately, will happen) is that the ideals and opinions of the founders are lost as Google leaves their control. Venture capitalists, e.g., have little interest in ethics. As new managers enter the company the risk of “moral hazard” increases. Etc.

    This is a story the world has seen countless times. Google may not even be the most important instance of this phenomenon: It can be argued that e.g. the US, as a whole, is going through a similar process, the French and Russian revolutionaries did not set out to create the monsters that they did create, the big religions have often ended somewhere very different from where they started, …

    • Honestly? I think you’re right – I’m being slightly provocative regarding the motto thing.

      The key point is the one you very aptly underline: the road to hell is paved with good intentions (french saying, hope the gist of it gets across in english). Whatever the positive intentions of a human endeavour might be at their inception, the end result can end up being very nasty indeed.

      That’s why Google today poses a huge threat, whereas in it’s early days, it was a pretty good thing.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  2. Google. Big Brother? Evil?

    There’s no shortage of rhetoric (some highly technical but opinionated nonetheless) being thrown at Google especially with respect to how dangerous, evil, or invasive it has become. Staunch arguments are frequent claiming that Google manipulates information and the public and that it is destructive in several of its motions. And of course, some of the warnings are that Google might become some distorted information tyrant in the not too distant future, so be on your guard. I’m going to take a somewhat different stance here, not so much in defense of Google, but rather what it is we should really be focused on with regards to “Dangerous Corporations” especially within the corporate environment of 2011.

    I would like to address this big concern with Google as a highly dangerous entity. First of all, how dangerous can it possibly be? Second, how dangerous can it get considering the fact that it doesn’t create anything tangible? Even if it were to maliciously spy on a large swath of the browsing public, how dangerous could it possibly get? Before readers jump to quick answers, first consider this: Google is an internet giant with more than just a roomful of employees. It is an exceptionally large corporation, a Mega Corporation with employees everywhere, a massive collection of people all of whom no doubt do not share some common ideology other than the fact that many of its employees most likely want their employer to stay in business, to succeed, and stay healthy in many ways. Google’s collective force and vision, its business path, might mean further expansion to some employees, it might not mean anything of the sort to other employees. People get alarmed when they hear reports about events and information pertaining to the likelihood that the Google network is becoming either overly invasive or that it stands to become a monopoly as such. Remember, Google doesn’t produce anything we can touch. Like many parts of those items attached to the internet it was assembled rapidly. Despite its size, it could also be rapidly disassembled if it suddenly were to become a reckless player. A major shift from a company like Google, still a very new company, towards outright invasive behavior and/or a zealous approach to gathering information could amount to a quick business-death-sentence, especially if substantiated reports of such behavior gather any sort of media momentum. This is part of the risk when a company provides a virtually invisible service. Its business hull consists of select intangible parts adjoined to one another, fragile pieces held together by rivets of trust. And Google can’t afford to lose trust. If Google makes big waves in certain areas then it simply won’t last no matter how big it is. A ship that size could potentially go down quickly.

    Regardless of how Google tracks information, even if much of that collected information might appear to be very personal, again I ask the question: How dangerous can Google get? Also, does it in any way monitor itself? Short of any moral code or company mission that is firmly grounded on safe and best business practices, is there a design fail-safe within Google itself that won’t or can’t allow it to push the information envelope too far, even if the behavior of its directors or the motions of its business plan become increasingly suspicious? Google prompts a host of questions. But the age is changing. Given the information landscape of today. Given the competition of internet entities that provide similar services. Given the demands of intelligence and this new trump card called The Patriot Act that is available to play. Given the speed of communication and the outright responsibility that the media has to report accurate information and to make it quickly available to the general public. Given the fears that many people have about protecting their own personal information, and their own identities, and that being tracked or monitored by anything that might end up looking like a “Big Brother” will not be tolerated. And given the high value people place on keeping their own business private. Fears, values, information, and communication all meet at a crossroads. And through it all Google has to walk a business tightrope.

    Some people who post blogs and articles won’t explain exactly why Google is so dangerous, much of the language there is speculative or is based upon items that are minor details, small events. They often note that Google engages in strange and conspicuous business practices, or that it engages in mysterious activities and/or full fledged propaganda. There are people within the media who have even made the wild claim that Google may be the most dangerous corporation in the world. And if you’re one of those people who thinks so, then I must say clearly here that Google isn’t even in the discussion, at least not in adult discussions that prioritize those most dangerous of corporate culprits, those big players that perform grotesque looking things in real time and real space. In that realm, Google isn’t even in the ballpark. It’s not even in the stadium parking lot. To crack that Top Ten list takes some doing. Where is Google killing? Where is it polluting? Where is it exploiting and laying waste to landscape and economy? Where is it destroying? And if readers think that Google is fully engaged in a propaganda war thereby deceiving the public somehow, then those readers who think thus haven’t witnessed the impact of real propaganda, especially when it occurs on the front edge of a stealthy business rapier.

    Companies come and go. Some get absorbed, some get passed by, some have an eminent failure for their business plan, and some can’t see around the next corner. A few grow to immense proportions. And size often causes alarm with some people whether it be Google, Microsoft, General Electric, AT&T, US Steel, The East India Trading Company, Wal Mart, or Nike. Some of that alarm comes with a solid foundation based upon ugly facts especially if a large corporation leaves behind a ghost town in its business wake. But size shouldn’t necessarily draw too much alarm if that corporation doesn’t produce anything tangible even if it has in fact become a Mega-Corporation. Similar to Facebook, you can’t touch what Google primarily does in function. So size isn’t a big issue with me knowing that first, Google might be the clear cut favorite for search engine use right now, but there are still some players out there such as Bing and Yahoo. Second, Google provides services not products, and many of the services that it does provide are still free. And that’s important. And so long as those services remain free I find it difficult to go off onto any super critical tangent especially when I’m drawing value out of what it provides. Nobody is forcing me to use Google, there are alternatives.

    If you want to consider danger, then consider this: Exxon/Mobil and British Petroleum are easy to criticize given their history and what it is that they do. And not lost to many people is their advertising machinery, especially evident when they blanket television screens with the soft look of fresh and sometimes young innocent looking faces, endearing spokespersons who tell us about the future, about possibilities, and all the good works that these gentle giants are currently tackling in order to help get us there. Some of this is presented to the public like a gentle broad stroke, a reassuring pat down the back reminding us about all the hard that they are engaged in which will move us towards a greener earth. I see this green research and these new developments for what they are, a flimsy shroud, a cheap looking corporate rain check that keeps the future at bay, a future that should have already passed. In the real world of the here and now these behemoths ravage the planet. Make no mistake, that’s what a propaganda network looks like and it’s very dangerous stuff. It’s also forced upon all of us despite any beliefs or personal opinions any of us have. We have to deal with it on ugly levels day after day then endure it somehow. I could talk at length about what entities like those really do, about their real impact on earth, sky, and water, and about what their real contribution is to society. How they change the landscape, how they transform government and distort foreign policy.

    But back to point, unfortunately those are Mega-Corporations that provide products (products that destroy). If someone feels the need to get critical when discussing the implications of size and power then those might be more appropriate places to start, not with an internet giant that concerns itself with how information is gathered, collated, and disseminated. If Google had some weird political platform that it hoisted like a black flag, then it would be time to get worried. So pushing the problem of size aside, right now the water is calm enough for me. And right now they offer free services that I value. I use their search engine frequently. I pull information from it, I apply it to what I’m doing, and occasionally I find new things that I can use and integrate into my site. Sure, I could have used another engine and perhaps retrieved similar looking results, but I didn’t. So on a personal level, and perhaps albeit myopic, Google deserves loads of credit.

    Daniel A. Pino
    Author, The Western Arc

  3. @Daniel

    Skimming through your extremely long comment, I get the impression that you are almost naively optimistic. To touch on just a few issues:

    There are a great many churches, parties, and other powerful organisations that do not (or only as a side-line) manufacture anything—yet undeniable hold a lot of power to do good or evil. Indeed, historically, many of them have done evil…

    If Google does (or already has) turned evil, what guarantee is there that they will lose customers? Microsoft is still the dominant OS deliverer in the world, despite being very evil—and having a lousy product. Marketing is unfortunately more important than truth; business strategy more important than quality.

    Not controlling information can have unexpected and dire side-effects. I recommend Kevin Mitnick’s “The art of deception” for many examples of this.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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