Google Post

EDIT:  this is the perfect post to include some googly eyes!

google eyes


This post was harder for me to write than the Facebook one, in large part because I have a lot more personal affection for Google. They’re a pretty cool company, they have a nice Northern California vibe, they do a lot of good, I like the April Fool’s jokes, I think they’d be a fun place to work, and just yesterday I noticed myself gushing about how awesome is Google Calculator (answer: very awesome). But, as I mentioned in my Facebook post from a few weeks ago, I also have significant reservations about Google. And, with Tuesday’s news about Larry Page delivering the commencement address at Michigan this spring, I think this is a good time to get my thoughts about Google in writing. So, please follow me below the fold for more!

As implied in the Facebook post, one major problem I have with Google is that it, like Facebook, makes most of its revenue from advertising (something like 98%) while holding on to unbelieveable amounts of personal data about the people to whom it advertises. In Facebook’s case, the personal data comprise your friends, interests, and brand loyalty, as well every click or message you make related to the above. Google’s information depends on how exactly you use Google. If you want to do anything other than the most basic web search, however, then you need to have a Google account, which is shared across all Google applications. The information Google can associate with your Account includes:

  • a complete history of all your web searches (but only over the last nine months – props to them for that)
  • the complete text of every email you have ever sent or received using Gmail
  • the complete transcripts of all your Gchats
  • your daily schedule if you use Google Calendar
  • every major website you visit (most major sites use Google Analytics to measure traffic, so Google has access to all that information as well)
  • everything you do on the Internet if you use the defaults on Google Chrome
  • everything you do with your cell phone if you have a phone with Android
  • your medical records if you use Google Health

As you can see, if you stay signed into a single Google Account, the company can amass a pretty amazing amount of information about you. In my opinion, this information is safer against hackers, malicious employees, or stupid corporate decisions, if you trust it to Google than it would be with Facebook, but it’s still by no means secure. Fortunately, unlike Facebook, Google turns a profit, so they can afford to sacrifice some potential revenue in favor of user protection if necessary. Finally, they do have that awesome “don’t be evil” corporate motto, and I do take them at their word there: Google really does seem to be a well-intentioned company that cares about its employees, the environment, and the good of the world in general (with a few unfortunate exceptions).

So, we can assume Google isn’t just nosy, and therefore that they must have some reason for wanting all this information about you; after all, there’s no obvious reason Google Earth should require your Google Account information before it can download the satellite images you request, or that Google needs to link your email address to the last nine months of searches you made. The reason should be pretty obvious: information is power, and power leads to profit. In this case, the information Google collects allows them to learn more about you so they can improve the persuasiveness of their targeted advertising, which is essentially their only source of revenue. If targeted advertising ever becomes less lucrative, Google is going to face some pretty powerful incentives to start extracting as much profit as they can from this mountain of personal information (including, I can’t resist mentioning, some “sensitive information”). I’ve thought a bit about how they could do this, including selling it to unscrupulous third-parties or creating detailed psychological profiles of their users and selling those instead, but the specifics aren’t really the point.

The point is that, regardless of how it eventually manifests itself, the incentives for Google are really skewed here. I would suggest refraining from using Google’s services much (especially with the same Google Account on all services) until they revise their privacy policy and stop storing all this information about you. But here is a situation where we, the ordinary people of the Internet, can actually organize to change the incentives for Google and force them to seriously respect our privacy. Lawrence Lessig, for example, seems to me to be a good force for this sort of organizing.

Just one more point I really need to mention. While the unofficial motto is “don’t be evil”, the official objective of Google is nearly as famous, and much more portentous: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. This sounds really wonderful, and in many ways it is, but it’s not a value-neutral statement. Information is power, so democratizing information is in fact democratizing the world, which is something I generally support. But real democracies inevitably contain some pretty serious inequalities, and combining these inequalities with democratizing too much information can lead to some pretty awful outcomes. A famous example is the idea of the Panopticon, the creepiness of which is dramatized most effectively for me by the one-way TV screens in 1984. If all the world’s information is successfully indexed, but any inequalities exist in access to this information, then the panopticon becomes possible. Anyway, while there is centuries of thought about privacy and power and access to information, it’s not clear to me that Google’s mission is very well thought-out, beyond a “wouldn’t that be cool” fantasy of some graduate students. So instead of treating Google with the techno-utopian joy we would use for, say, the invention of a flying car, I submit that we should look at today’s Google more like the first mushroom cloud heralding the potential start of a new Age.


8 Responses

  1. Hey! I loved your diary on MyDD and was wondering if you could crosspost it on I’ve been reading some of your other stuff and your style would really fit in with the Moose vibe. Check out the blog and hope to see you there! Either way I’ve bookmarked your blog. Peace!

  2. Done! And thanks again for the comments! See you around

  3. Saw that. Sweet! The Moose has a slower pace so comments accumulate over time. It has a great community vibe in a troll free zone. Hope to see a lot more from ya dude! PEACE!

  4. along with every youtube video you visit, every blog post you read if you use google reader, your entire process from drafting ideas to finished product if you use google docs, images you upload, every blogger site regardless of google analytics, etc

    it’s tough… i use google extensively because the products are so good, and free. but it’s tough to reconcile that with its privacy implications

  5. […] and privacy Published January 24, 2009 privacy Tags: Google Mike’s blog The point is that, regardless of how it eventually manifests itself, the incentives for Google are […]

  6. You’re right Nirmal, and I don’t know what the right action is. I use Google products as well – it’s really hard not to nowadays – but I do try to use different accounts with different services at least. I guess ultimately the solution will be to change the incentives for these companies by standing up for our personal information, either via direct regulation or indirectly through broad social awareness of the problem

  7. […] been thinking about the comments I received to my Google and Facebook posts, as well as some related posts and articles (the article’s worth reading, btw) […]

  8. […] some bloggers who don’t like Twitter. Now, Twitter is a social networking platform, but, unlike Google and Facebook, I have no problem with Twitter, so I am going to defend it […]

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