Is Google becoming Big Brother?

I was recently invited to present a talk to the Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group on Google as Big Brother, with obvious reference to George Orwell’s prescient book 1984 and other totalitarian dystopias. The talk was quite interesting – and the research I did beforehand rather troubling – and the 40+ people who attended found it quite informative and thought-provoking. As a result, I am hoping you will also find the minutes of the meeting valuable too…
Introduction (Josh Zapin): “Everyone uses Google about every day, although many don’t use their analytical services. Maps, news, and image search are popular. Does Google have too much market power? What did we do before Google?
“There are some other search engines around that no one uses anymore. The numbers for Google are off the charts. 48.8 percent market share and still growing. There were 2.5 billion Google searches in December 2005, and the amount of searching going on is increasing. Google gets 80 million unique visitors per month and they have $125 billion market capitalization. Is this dangerous?
“Google is a window that doesn’t just look out onto the Internet, but also looks in. Google records societal trends based on what people are looking for. Gmail is very popular, but context-sensitive ads actually read your email. Google Analytics is a neat package that lets you know what’s going on on your website… but is Google using the information it collects from you? Should we be concerned about them becoming a Big Brother?”

Here’s where my talk begins…
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
–George Orwell, 1984
Privacy is a matter of perspective. Different people are concerned about different things. For example, cell phones allow the network to always know where you are. This is useful for sending targeted ads to your cell phone based on your location, like telling you about a nearby restaurant. Imagine if all data were available to everyone. It already seems to be true: random companies seem to know how much money I owe on my mortgage, and I’ve never heard of these companies. Based on information companies have about you, they can target specific ads (and make offers based on what I owe on my mortgage).
I think a big problem is coming. Google is not about searching; it’s about collecting and mining data. Their purpose is to make money because this is a capitalist system. But where are the checks and balances?
Why mine data? Google’s business model is Ads by Google, making up over 90 percent of their revenue. In the old days, you spend your marketing budget putting up billboards and only a tiny fraction of the people it’s exposed to generate a sale. That’s a very bad equation. Google instead charges you a percentage of actual sales, no charge if no one buys. This “performance-based advertising” is new even in just the past two years. Google’s whole business is about getting those ads put in the right place. So data mining is critical to this company’s success.
Google’s market valuation is based entirely on its ability to sell ads, and it’s all about context. When you do a search, you get relevant ads, which is astonishing. Getting that match is critical.
But to create context, you have to have data. For example, you have to know synonyms, common misspellings, jargon, Latin phrases, etc.
Google archives everything. You can’t really delete anything. When data appears on the Internet, they are like a kudzu vine that covers everything almost instantly.
Think about Orwell’s thought police and thought crime, and how history could be revised to suit political needs. Does Google have this power?
Consider the seamy underbelly of Wikipedia. In practice, it’s a great success. It has great content. But historical stuff is more subject to debate. It lets whackos fight it out, so that anyone is writing history on wikipedia. So everything is fluid, and the more we rely on one data source, the more risk there is for manipulation.
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past.”
— George Orwell, 1984
Orwell wrote this knowing nothing about Google. I think that’s pretty amazing.
Who is concerned? sponsors the Big Brother Awards. Google was nominated in 2003. Why? Nine reasons:

  1. Google’s Immortal Cookie: Google stores a cookie on your computer used to identify you. What if other sites can look at that cookie? Well, browsers won’t just hand out cookies to anyone…you can’t sniff out other site’s cookies very easily, but Google’s cookie never expires. Lots of sites have followed their lead and establish immortal cookies now. Turn off your computer for 10 years? When you fire it up, Google will still remember you.
    Audience Comment: Firefox has a great cookie manager that lets have some control.
    Trouble is, Microsoft isn’t making it easy to manage your cookies….so the major browsers don’t help you much.
  2. Google records everything it can. Google Zeitgeist shows you the world’s most popular searches. Popular searches are based on saving every single search. It’s a big effort, but they have six zillion linux boxes to do it on. Google knows what news you’re reading. Lots of background stuff going on.
    They also track searches by geographic region. There’s no sense of anonymity anymore; on the Internet, you’re always leaving bread crumbs. You can do some erasing of trails, but at a fundamental level you can’t remove everything. Even old websites that have been long removed are still archived somewhere. Google owns the universe: you can’t control how people find or don’t find your site.
    Search results are algorithm-based, so that can be manipulated. Of course people can exploit the algorithms to their own advantage.
  3. Google retains all data indefinitely. They won’t say how long. Should you be concerned?
  4. Google won’t say why they need this data. But I think they need it to grow their data mine which increases their chances of success. The more data they have, the more stuff they can do with it, the more they can derive from it. They are figuring out relationships between keystrokes and consumer behavior.
  5. Google hires spooks. They hired a cryptologist once…
  6. The Google Toolbar is spyware (like all other toolbars). The toolbar reports your browsing history even if you never visit Google. It even reports automatically refreshing popup ads, showing you visited all of those sites too. This way it can determine what are the most popular pages on the web. It records your address if you map it, and then it knows how far things are from you in your search results. Google knows what browser I’m running, my OS, my IP address (from an IP address you can often know what street someone is on.
    Audience question: What about browser’s that have a built-in search window, like Firefox?
    That’s just a link to ordinary Google search. But even if you turn off your Google Toolbar, it still collects data in the background. People are happy to download toolbars because their cool. Most people have given up worrying about privacy.
  7. Google’s cache copy of website material is illegal because it violates copyright law. This is debatable. Defenders say it’s important enough to allow searching, so it’s ok for Google to store copies of copyrighted material in its database. You can also program your site to tell Google not to archive it. Google tends to favor newer material, but sometimes it finds very old stuff.
  8. Google is not your friend. Google is a company in business to make money. It’s not a public utility, and they have no responsibility to the public. They can choose to kick anyone out of their database. This gives them a remarkable amount of power and control. They can make any company ‘cease to exist’ for any reason, with no recourse, no number to call.
    People get kicked out for trying to exploit the system, which is fine, but those people go and help others “promote” their site, and then innocent people get kicked out. There is no recourse for those people. Google doesn’t tell the reasons they kick people out, so that’s scary.
    Audience Comment: a lot of spammers should be kicked out, but I know people who have been kicked out for no reason at all.
    Google’s motto is not “Do no evil,” it’s “Let’s make money for our shareholders.”
  9. Google is a privacy time bomb due to Gmail. Gmail does things like extracting addresses from emails so it can offer to map it for you. Google knows I’m getting email from services that have that address. Antispam laws require advertisers to supply addresses, so that’s mostly what Google is feeding on. What happens when I get email from MSN adCenter, the Google competitor? Google knows I joined up with their competitor.
    Google says none of their stuff is personally identifiable, but who knows?
    Interestingly, Gmail doesn’t personally bother me. Perhaps the CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, was right: “Privacy is dead, deal with it.” Maybe it’s just no big deal.
    Audience Comment: a lot of companies collect info from registration cards, etc. and never seem use the data.
    That’s because these companies are brain dead. At least when people give up their privacy, they want to get something back. And it’s very easy to get data from people: you can go after kids on, etc. to get credit card numbers and other sensitive information.

But wait, there’s more!
Google is offering free wi-fi in San Francisco–think of what data they’ll get from it. Imagine if Google goes and buys Verizon and puts their search box on everyone’s phone… There’s Gchat… They are getting into VoIP. They can obviously then record all the phone numbers you dial.
Of course phone numbers and mortgages have always been public records, but now this information is so much easier to get.
Google is also managing people’s websites as a service, and getting access to even more data.
Google and local PC files: People are putting local tools on their PCs, and these little programs could be reporting data back to Google. This blurs the boundary between your local PC and the Internet, which is dangerous.
Google and Chinese Censorship: China hired Google to provide a search engine, but tweaked it to modify search results based on what the Chinese government wants. That’s fine, China can do what it wants. And so can Google. Google’s logic was, if we don’t do it, someone else will. Let’s be in there ready to make things better when there is an opportunity… and collect data on what the Chinese government is filtering.
How about image search in Saudi Arabia? They have to be censored. Should Google do it? What if Google is going along with other censorship rules of any other customer? Maybe your state will want to censor stuff someday. Some say Google shouldn’t have ‘compromised’, but I don’t.
Privacy is a huge continuum, and Google is a really important player.

Q & A

Q: What about market share getting taken away by Yahoo, MSN, etc.?
A: Others are copying Google with adwords, and having the same concerns as Google. But even if their market share drops, there are more users coming in, so their market still continues to grow. Google needs to get caught doing something really horrible before anything bad would happen to them.
Q: I worked at a search engine company. The info was incredibly loose, shipped overseas to get around privacy laws. It’s not just Google we have to worry about.
Q: property values are really wrong. So is it a problem?
A: It doesn’t matter because it ‘appears’ to be accurate. So now Zillow is setting property values to some extent. Maybe a criminal wants to find expensive houses to rob he can use Zillow to find them.
Q: How can Google help my business?
A: For all the negatives, the world is moving away from branding and towards whether or not your business can be found on line. If Google is replacing billboards, you better find a way to be found in Google.
Q: Google is the biggest branding success. A wonderful brand and business.
A: Yes, but Google is a success is because they were better than everyone else, not because of their brand. Google can help your business if you can get your business to pop up. The guys that don’t do web stuff will get killed in the new advertising market. The key is can you be found when someone searches for your service?
Q: I want to know how many people recommended a product.
A: Google ranks sites by how many people point to a page. But it’s not a democracy, because more important pointers are more valued. Doesn’t matter if people are pointing to it and saying bad things–Google doesn’t discriminate. Even at Amazon, you don’t know who is doing the reviews. But there is useful information to be had… every time we give up some privacy we get some cool results.
Q: Controlling history is more frightening to me than the privacy issues. Who can protect it?
A: Let’s Google “who won the civil war?” and see what we get. Schools don’t teach kids how to critically analyze the information they see. Does Google decide who won? Well, history has always been fluid, even before Google.
Q: History is based on consensus of opinion. But the raw facts shouldn’t be under the control of the free market. What will people of the future be looking at to understand what happened today?
A: Well, a lot of historical documents are myth. Perhaps it will depend on whoever edited the wikipedia answer this morning. Certainly the free market is better than nothing.
Q: The internet has a lot of real stuff stored, if you want to find the truth about stuff.
Q: At my company we had one employee who installed a Google Desktop and this resulted in ITAR-sensitive documents being stored in Google. Big Oops.
A: This doesn’t surprise me. That’s the danger of not having a clear boundary between what’s on your computer and local network, and what’s on the Internet for all to see.
Q: Isn’t everything moving towards moving all information online, with remote applications and storage, etc?
A: All the stories about the PC going away and everything being done remotely just haven’t panned out… but maybe that will yet happen.
Q: Perhaps a few paranoid people will keep their servers in safes, while everyone else goes 100% on line.
Q: Why hasn’t Google moved on some their other cool stuff, like Froogle?
A: Well, Google has too much stuff going on. Check out Google Labs. Things just show up. Little tools that collect data.
Also, Yahoo shops is cool, Google might want to do the same thing when they’re not focused on something else.
Q: How do they make money off of something like Froogle?
A: By placing ads. Like Gator, but 10 years later. Everything is about ad placement.
Q: Two sites: one has yahoo ads, the other has Google ads, otherwise the same. Will Google rank one site higher?
People debate this. We just don’t know. But I think this would be too dangerous for Google to do.
For that matter, let’s talk about the click fraud problem too. What happens if you tell your friends to click on a competitor’s ads to inflate their marketing costs. OR, for people who pay to put ads on your site (AdSense), you can tell friends to come to my site and click on some ads. This is Google’s Achilles heal: if it doesn’t work, Google will lose all their revenue. They will try to solve click fraud through data mining, and this is their most important effort right now.
Ask yourself how much privacy your giving up… when you surf, when you email, when you gas up with a credit card?
Just ask yourself….

5 comments on “Is Google becoming Big Brother?

  1. Google is everything you mentioned and more. Google knows the future of the world monthes before anybody else even starts looking for trends.
    There was a search engine that searched blogs for topics and watched the trends and attitudes of bloggers. It vanished almost as soon as it became known.
    Google never makes any such thing known……but they have all the tools to make any kind of business decision they want, virtually without risk.

  2. You stated the search engine which searched blogs for trends and attitudes of bloggers vanished. Do you know what happened. Were they bought? or technically dropped ie someone bribed someone to drop them. Thanks for responding.

  3. 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

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