Could Google do evil?

My coworker Martin sent around a link to an article that paints Google as being a great big source of evil, tantamount to being the core of a near-police state. To say that it’s a little alarmist is putting it mildly.

I have one fundamental issue with the spin this article (which is more a work of fiction than journalism): Just because people use Google data for malicious intent does not make Google itself evil.

I honestly feel at times that [[Why no-one should care that Google censored itself in China|I’m defending the devil]]. Over the last couple of years, there’s been an increasing sense of alarm that, somehow, Google is capturing everything there is to know about people to do something nasty.

Let’s look at the big issues here:

  1. Google tracks your searches, the ads you see, and indexes everything you’ve done

It’s a known fact that Google tracks the searches entered into its system, and uses keywords to serve out ads. That’s they’re revenue model. The more people who use Google, the more ads they serve, the more money they make. Not really anything new — TV has been doing this rather successfully for decades.Given, TV isn’t interactive (yet). When you change a channel, you’re just telling your local device to read a different one-way signal. With Google (or another search engine), you’re feeding instructions that are turned into a result of some kind.

Does that mean Google knows exactly what you’re searching for? Well, if you have a Google Account and are logged in, there’s the distinct possibility. (Google does not state specific usage.) But if you’re just a regular Joe Schmuck user, all you are is an IP. If you work for a company, it’s probably a gateway IP — everyone has the same number. If you’re with most dial-up, cable, or DSL connections, your IP is actually that of a modem, and likely changes every few weeks. And let’s not forget the people who share computers at work, at home, in libraries, and so forth.

In short, Google can’t uniquely identify you reliably 100% of the time. Even with cookies (which many people block or regularly clean), it’s still not a perfect system, and they do not include anything that identifies you directly.

  1. Google sells (either currently or in the future) this metadata to other parties (public or private)

Right now, the only one who use Google metadata direct from the search engine for any form of use is Google itself. You’ve seen those ads, right? Guess where they come from? It’s because Google’s system searches for keywords. If you don’t provide them yourself (e.g. search), it finds them in what you’re viewing (e.g. mail).Would Google sell that metadata? Possibly — there’s certainly a market for metadata that could lead to significant profits. But there’s that lovely mantra they love to recite: Do no evil.

Right now, Google has (almost) more money than God. Where’s the real benefit in them selling potentially dangerous information when they don’t really need the income? And certainly, there’s the risk of that data being put to malicious purposes. Following the mantra, it’s an unlikely event. Best to keep the genie bottled, just in case.

  1. Google is directly responsible (at least in the story) for marking someone as subversive or even dangerous, leading to a Googler’s implied assassination.

Please. Give me a freaking break. Google can barely identify content in my website let alone declare me a degenerate. Google does not pass judgement beyond search rankings. They don’t care — there’s no reason or profit to consider that — and it’s definitely on the evil side. There’s no logic there to take effectively random pieces of information and come to a conclusion.

For that to happen, you need the deviousness and ignorance of a human. Only we intelligent apes can draw conclusions where none should exist.

  1. Google knows where you are at all times

As cool as Google Earth is, it’s only as good as the most recent satellite information, which is six months old (at least). It’s not hard to disappear from under such lazy eyes.As for Google tracking you through searches, or your iPhone, that’s going to come down to whether or not they need or want to. Right now, where’s the value? Google’s about providing value — without value, no-one would use their services. Google needs value from that — they wouldn’t offer something if it didn’t ultimately generate revenue. If those don’t match up, they don’t get used (see Google Answers for an example).

[Ed. note (many years later): Well, I got this wrong…]

  1. Google reads your email

Yes, Google reads your email. Much in the way you read a foreign language newspaper that you don’t really understand — it looks for keywords, or in more simple terms, familiar-looking words. Remember that point about serving out ads? That’s why when your sister sends you all sorts of baby pictures, your ads are full of things like diapers, baby clothes, and strollers. It latches on to specific things and runs with it, much like how a little kid discovers a new word and keeps repeating it.The question is not if Google reads your email, it’s whether or not it understands it. And the short answer on that is “no”.

  1. Google has a monopoly, and is tightening it with the DoubleClick purchase

A monopoly is a company that has majority (or sole) control of an industry. So technically, Google is almost a monopoly. While it does have a majority control, it’s definitely not sole — there are several competitors nipping at their heels. But like Gulliver being attacked by the Lilliputians, Google doesn’t really notice the effect on its search traffic by its competitors.There are also a few sites that proclaim that Google is Big Brother and uses their clout to their own advantage. Well DUUUUUH — it’s a business. Of course they’re going to do that. It’s their product, and they’re going to use it to the best of their advantage. Name any other company, and they all do the same thing.But that’s search. Overture and Microsoft are making dents with ad traffic. And there are other competitors out there that interfere with Google’s revenue. Hence why Google went after DoubleClick. Google’s doing the smart thing — go past Adwords to banners, which DoubleClick has done beautifully for years.

Yes, DoubleClick has a massive database. And so they should, considering all the work they’ve done over the years. For anyone who’s ever worked with DoubleClick, they’re very happy about this — they actually get an appreciation for the market that is viewing their DoubleClick-served ads. But it’s no different (or more evil) than anything Google has done.

  1. Google did evil in China, and does so (more quietly) in North America

I’ll keep this one short. All media outlets (no matter how grand their intentions) and governments (no matter how righteous they claim to be) censor content. As for Google’s specific actions in China, see my [[Why no-one should care that Google censored itself in China|blog post]] about this.

The last point I leave for a larger point of discussion: Google’s involvement with the United States Government.

In the story, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contracts Google to provide access to information on individuals to allow for profiling and background searches. This is what leads the “hero” of the story to get in trouble in the first place.

To start, the US Government contracts services to private industry all the time — witness the defense industry. But this comes at a cost and risk to the Government (they might/will get gouged), the private company (ever-changing political landscapes), and to the public at large (see your tax dollars go bye-bye). But this is the nature of things — either pump up the size of government agencies, or farm the work out to someone else.

Yes, folks, outsourcing existed long before North America discovered Bangalore.

But what if the government uses that private company to — as the article suggests — wreak havoc? It’s possible, and it’s already been done before. Witness AT&T’s involvement with the NSA. And not always to either sides’ benefit.

Therein lies the rub. So long as the deviousness goes unknown, chances are no-one will notice or care. But the moment something bad is made public, people will start to take notice, and in the US, people will make their voices heard by going elsewhere.

Think AT&T hasn’t been hurt by the whole NSA thing? Do you think Google wouldn’t be hurt by the very public knowledge that their information has turned your life into constant surveillance?

This is the convenient side of balance. If this were to happen, and Google’s services put to “evil” use by someone else, chances are that a lot of people would migrate away from Google to other services. It’s possible that the damage would already be done, but as soon as Google’s revenue starts to dry up, you could bet they’d end their DHS contract faster than you can say “I’m feeling lucky”.

Finally, there’s one ray of hope that this would likely never come to pass. Google already has a track record of giving the US Government the finger when it requested Google hand over search data. Google follows their “do no evil” mantra — even in cases where it would seem to make sense, they’re careful not to slide down the slope.

‘Cuz once you start, it’s damned hard to stop.