Can a search engine be evil? It can, if it’s so popular that the people who run it hold great power for which they are unaccountable. It is, if those same people have nothing but contempt for the rights, privacy and customer experience of those who use their services.
Search giant Google cooperated with China in 2006, helping the Communist government of “the world’s most restrictive Internet environment” to “censor politically sensitive topics on a new Chinese version of its search engine.” This news came only a week after Google claimed it would deny then-President Bush’s administration access to data on its users. “Google.cn,” according to Jane Coyle, “is reported to restrict topics covering Tibet, Taiwan, the Tiananmen massacre and criticism of the Communist Party,” among other things.
Google was ranked “worst” by the advocacy group Privacy International, who consider the site “hostile” to users’ Internet privacy. Google reportedly reacted to that report with the usual unconvincing denial, even as Privacy International decried Google’s “numerous deficiencies and hostilities” as constituting “an endemic threat to privacy.”
It’s a matter of public record that Google CEO Eric Schmidt doesn’t give a damn about your privacy. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Schmidt was quoted, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” The Register went on to point out that Schmidt and Google blackballed CNET, refusing to speak with CNET reporters for a year after the popular site’s reporters dared to publish Google-search-gleaned personal data about Schmidt himself. The point was to demonstrate the dangers of the data Google amasses about you and me across its Internet empire.
“Most Web users,” Cade Metz writes, “don’t even realize that Google is hoarding their data.” According to Google’s own “Privacy Center,” the site does not “anonymize” your search and profile data for nine months – twice that for cookies. That’s up to a year and a half that Google can be sifting through your personal data and learning things about you through what you search and do online … and up to a year and a half that this data can be compromised by hackers. By building such a database, Google creates a store of value that an identity thief would naturally find tempting.
In July of last year, Clint Boulton argued that Google is an antitrust threat. In analyzing Google’s “octopus-like approach to search and Web services,” including Google’s Chrome browser and its Chrome Operating System, Boulton claims the company’s business practices “paint a damning picture of a company that has accrued such sway over the search market that its sheer size is prohibitive for any entrant hoping to make a go of it in the business of organizing the world’s information.”
Of course, you needn’t even use a Google product to find yourself staring into Google’s all-seeing electronic Eye of Sauron. Google’s “Street View” service, for which it sends camera-equipped cars into neighborhoods worldwide in order to record what those streets look like at ground level, forces you to participate in a Google search on the most intimate terms. It’s bad enough that Google amasses a database of information about its users; now it’s photographing the homes, cars and likenesses of people who aren’t even using the Internet. Outrage over Google’s heavy-handed tactics has grown to the point that people are taking the matter into their own hands. In the U.K., angry villagers called the cops to stop a Google camera car from sweeping their neighborhood. (Google responded with its usual insincerity; a spokesperson was quoted as saying, “We take privacy very seriously.”) Across the ocean, a couple in Pittsburgh sued to have pictures of their home removed from the Street View service.
It has long been rumored that Google searches are politically biased. Andrew Lark reported back in 2005 that a USC Annenberg School for Communication study indicates “articles returned by Google News tend to be significantly more biased … than articles from Yahoo News.”
Three years later, prominent political columnist Michelle Malkin wrote, in 2008, that Google had been deliberately blocking her from uploading a politically charged video. The most popular video-sharing site in the world is YouTube, and Google owns and controls YouTube. The power of such a popular site is very convenient … until you find yourself on the wrong side of the opinions held by the self-righteous arbiters of Google’s content. If Google starts purging conservative news sites, those sites effectively stop existing for a large percentage of Internet users. Just this week, Google stopped adding news stories provided by the Associated Press. While the AP could hardly be described as conservative, news from the Associated Press now doesn’t exist for users who get their news from Google pages.
In its other business ventures, Google’s approach to both its customers and to the market is similarly casual. Google’s Chrome, a browser it is pushing hard across the sites it controls, has numerous potential security vulnerabilities. “Vulnerability researcher” Robert Hansen criticized Google for building “a browser in isolation,” saying users should not download Chrome if they care at all about security. Google’s decision to scan books from China for its digital library has outraged Chinese authors; Google says it is “sorry” for any “poor communication,” but it won’t stop the scanning. Meanwhile, the introduction of Google’s “Nexus One” smartphone has resulted in a flood of complaints about poor customer service. Users can get support only through e-mail, and are rightly indignant that the makers of a $500 wireless device don’t offer a dedicated telephone support line.
In its efforts to become some sort of intergalactic overlord of the Internet, Google has made major strides toward significant domination of key facets of Internet use. I use its products myself, and for the most part I like them. We must, however, consider very carefully the implications of allowing such a powerful and, ultimately, unaccountable entity to affect our daily lives to the degree that Google does. If you’re not worried, you ought to be.