Dear Google, please be evil

von , 17.8.10

In Germany, home builders protest agitatedly against Google Street View. The strong outrage might seem to be a bit weird as people often make a plea against Google in the news being photographed in front of their house, but the moment they protest against is comprehensible. They are worried about Google controlling public space, and rightly so.

In the US, Google’s and Verizon’s proposal to turn away from net neutrality when it comes to wireless broadband has promptly evoked a storm protests in the whole world. More than ever, the digital access of information is political, and the ideal of equality is set aside.

Much like a work of art was never just another commodity, information isn’t just another product. Information is political, it conditions our society. Democracy is built on information. And not a public institution, but Google is managing that information. It isn’t just another brand. 75% internet users use Google. Much like Facebook or Apple it became an online nation.

When Sergej Brin and Larry Page founded the company, they wanted to make all the information on the internet accessible. Some years ago, however, we users decided to use search differently. When we use Google these days, we don’t search anymore the internet. When we don’t know something, we ask the internet. The internet became the index of the world. This is why we should be alert.

You confuse me! Or when private behaves like public

It is not that we have to throw our hands up in horror because the access of information is controlled privately. After all, newspapers have been private for good reasons. The problem is 1 that newspapers, television, institutions that are out there to control Google are about to become digital themselves, and are 2 therefore depending on the quasi-monopoly Google, a 3 quasi-monopoly that is in fact serving the public giving not a lot of reasons to oppose it.

Look, for example, here as flood disaster in Pakistan is entering a new dimension with more than 20 million people affected. Google is not only launching a crisis page that somehow steps in the role of news organisations who have been in command of writing contemporary history so far, adding new digital tools they developed like a resource finder for NGOs and person finder. Google is also trying to use their satellite capacity to help with pictures, something that the cloud coverage has prevented so far.

It is true that companies have responded to disasters before, and offered help. Most of the time these were disasters they felt somewhat connected to, or thought that a social gesture was good for their image. They didn’t actually establish an own permanent crisis response team that develops tools and uses Google technology to help, eh, society. Is Google a public service?

It is often behaving like one, but it isn’t. Much like newspapers and their separation of content and advertising Google is in fact already living up to stronger ethical standards than normal companies, but is that enough?

Who controls our frienemy?

As a company, Google can easily change its mind, like they did with tracking users.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published parts of an internal Google “vision statement” debating possibilities how to track users. As some of you might know, Google resisted for years using any method to track people online without their knowledge at the fierce insistence of founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as Jessica E. Vascellaro puts it in her interesting article.

Instead of tracking the user, Google used search terms and focused on contextual advertising only. The WSJ piece looks behind the Google scene reporting the debates going on between the founders, and the final decision to buy DoubleClick Inc.

The important thing isn’t really to see Google making up its mind to move from contextual advertising to target advertising introducing the cookie in March 2009, but to get evidence that the company is struggling with its role, and decided to move into cookie business. This is the problem.

As the internet became the index to our world, and Google is managing that index, who controls Google? This question is clearly not enough on our minds.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking: Dear Google, please be a bit more evil.


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