February 6, 2010

Don't Do Evil

"Don't Do Evil." Google's corporate slogan, at first blush, appears lofty, or maybe naive. Some argue it is a smoke-screen for the true purpose behind the creation of Google which was to rule the world as a result of its control of information. Personally, I am somewhere in the middle. I, don't believe Google exists for purely altruistic reasons. Yet, I find it hard to believe Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to rule the world. While I am impressed with the products Google has implemented, there is a voice inside me sending out warning signals. I many ways it is hard to articulate the content of those warning signals. When I try, I tend to ramble. So, I anticipate this being the first of several posts about Google and the issues raised by what they do. If nothing else, I hope what follow gives you something to think about.

An early Google tag line exclaims "We deliver the world's information in one click." In order to do this, Google has to gather the world's information, and store it on servers located all over the world, so when we do click on a mouse, the information has only a short distance to travel to our computer monitor. Simply put, Google began as a search company. They are run by engineers who developed an algorithm enabling us to search for information we want and have it delivered to us in a matter of seconds. It appears to me Google does this by collecting every piece of data they can from the people using their products. When we perform a search, Google stores our query. When we click on an ad we see on a search results page, Google stores that information too. Google's business plan must be based in a large part on selling advertising. The data Google collects from our searches, including the amount of time we spend viewing an ad, reading something we click on, what we search for, where we go to next, what we appear to like and dislike, is invaluable to them, and more importantly, to the company paying for the advertisement. Though Google claims not to turn information over to the advertiser, they use the information themselves to help the advertiser target customers. By using Google for our search needs we are trusting them not to share our personal information with anyone. We are telling them, "Don't Do Evil."

Privacy Issues
I believe we must be aware of the possibilty that our personal information may be shared with others. Our privacy rights may be violated. But, have we "assumed the risk" by using Google search of our own free will. It's a dilemma.

I read, and enjoy movies. I enjoy a good conspiracy theory. The possibilities are interesting to me. For example, for many years I've felt, in a tiny space in the back of my brain, that Google was collaborating with the United States government, or one of its information gathering agencies. My theory is Google enticed millions of people to use its free gMail product so it could gather personal information and share that information with the United States government. How else did they make money on a free service? By selling advertising? I suppose it's possible, but not as sexy as my conspiracy theory. Have you ever noticed the advertisements that appear on your screen after you perform a search. More times than not, the advertisement relates to something in your search. Have you noticed the ads on my blog (generated by Google's AdSense) change as my posts change, and they generally relate in some way to the post itself. coincidence? Seems to me Google is on very thin ice. They need to gather information about us to be the best at what they do. We need to have a tremendous amount of trust that Google isn't sharing our information. Google risks their entire business by sharing our information and losing our trust. If Google doesn't share our information how will they entise advertisers to pay for ads that generte revenue so Google can operate? See, it all fits nicely in my imagined conspiracy theory.

Maybe Google should be required to share information, or at least some information with government agencies. If Google is in the business of gathering information and they come across information that has national security implications, should they be permitted or required to share that information with the appropriate government agency? If the government, arrests a suspected terrorist, should it be permitted to see the messages that person sent via gMail? If so, may they then see the messages received and sent by the recipients of the mail sent by the suspected terrorist? If so, where does it stop? Is someone from a government agency sitting in a room 24/7/365 scanning every message sent by the millions of gMail users. If so, my conspiracy theory gets more interesting doesn't it. Did you hear about the high school teacher who, as a class lesson, sent a phony message through gMail that hinted at possible terrorist activity? The very next day, the FBI showed up at his house. It could have happened.

Think for a minute about the privacy implications of the following stream of thought. Google has an incredible amount of power because they developed a device to gather and store information from all aspects of your life. The data it gathers from you grows much like a multi-level marketing campaign with Google at the very bottom of the pile. The more people that use it, the more data is collected. The more data collected, the more advertisers want to advertise because Google can maximize their advertising dollars through their ability to provide data that helps the advertisers target Google users. Every time we search we provide Google with data because we choose a result. And, every time we choose a result we give Google data that they learn something from. For just a minute, assume this theory is correct. What comes to mind when you think about these words: privacy, greed, competition? What happens when I toss in the fact that I've only mentioned two of Google's products; search and gMail? What happens when you add in the data gathered through You Tube, Google Docs, Google Calendar, gChat, AdSense, Adwords, Google Analytics, and the rest of the Google product line? What happens to my theory when we learn Google purchased Doubleclick? Doubleclick provides the digital platform for websites to sell online ads and advertisers and agencies to buy advertising. What happens when we learn Doubleclick uses its database to help advertisers target prospects. Does it appear to you Google's purchase of Doubleclick may have given it the opportunity to become the foundation of all advertising on the Internet. Is that too large a stretch of the imagination?

"Conspiracy Theory" or "Reality"
Is my imagination creating a conspiracy theory worthy of a screenplay for a "B Movie" or is it reality? In the February 4, 2010 issue of "The Denver Post" newspaper I read an article about Google and the National Security Association (NSA), one of the United States government's largest information gathering agencies. The essence of the article was Google and the NSA were in conversations to see if the NSA could assist Google in determining how or who was responsible for hacking into the gMail system in China. It appears gMail accounts in China were hacked into, disabled, and plundered of their content. It also appears that the targeted accounts werre those of Chinese dissidents, people who oppose the Chinese government, and people who are proponents of the free flow of information in China. What happens to my "Conspiracy Theory" if Google consumates a deal with the NSA and opens up its databases to this information gathering organization? What if Google has been providing the NSA with this information all along, and this is just an excuse to get the relationship out into the open because people much smarter than me are thinking about my "Conspiracy theory?" Stay tuned.


Brad Friedman said...

I've received two comments I would have liked to have shared with you. Both were anonymous, and I have said before I don't want to permit anonymous comments. Stand up for what you believe in! Use your name and comments again!

Lauren said...

Very interesting stuff. I don't think it's just Google you're talking about here - I think it's the Internet as a whole. The Internet is not private no matter how many "privacy" settings you customize. Anything we put on Facebook or Twitter is public. People rip off other people's photos all the time. There are certain precautions you can take (like copyright, etc.) but ultimately, I feel the Internet is somewhat a free for all. Very interesting read.

Brad Friedman said...

Google is now mixing paid listings with organic search. Take a look at this article. Paste this into your browser:


I wonder if this will now effect the quality of search results we might have had up to now?

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