In the garden of Google and evil

Is Google evil?

 "Google has a vision, which is a semi sinister vision, at least by American standards. That vision is to know everything about you. Where you are every minute of the day, who your friends are, what you believe, what you like, what you dislike. I do not believe that a privately held company that's not accountable to anyone should have an unregulated window into everyone's soul."

Six months ago private investigator Steve Rambam made that comment during an interview that lead to my story What the Web Knows About you. Rambam, who works in a shadow world of private investigations, thinks your privacy is dead.

But is Google evil? That's not really the right question. Framing it in that way immediately puts everything into black and white. It moves the debate away from corporate behavior to imply some sort of inherent badness that goes to the company's core. Google is a business, not a soul possessed by the devil.

Ironically, Google's own code of conduct, "Don't be evil," may have helped to shape the debate in that way, since it is now held to that standard. Today that slogan, which sounds cool for a scrappy startup, comes off as a bit trite for a company of Google's size. It is more akin to Austin Powers' flippant "Oh behave!" than it is to the more serious Hippocratic oath: "Above all, do no harm."

So how does Google behave when it comes to privacy? I decided to do a little digging, and this morning the result of that research, What Google Knows About You, went live on Computerworld.com.

What Google Wants

I didn't find an evil Google. What I found was a business that has grown very fast around a single cash cow business (search). I found an innovative business that is trying to diversify with an ever expanding array of "free" products and services, and that is struggling - as its competitors are - to find a way to make money from those services by serving up ads to users based on some of the information it knows about them.

Google uses some of what it knows about you to deliver targeted advertising. Privacy advocates are worried about how it might use the rest of the information it has stored on its servers. Indeed, it is the suspicion that Google is aggregating the information it has about people through its various services that leads people to use words like "nefarious" when describing the company. "The Google people are very smart,"  Rambam says. "They understand that the future is going to be reliant on information. If you own the information you are the boss."

Jeffrey Chester, founder and exeutive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, thinks Google is driven to evil ways by the market. And he dismisses Google's privacy efforts as hypocrisy. Google promotes itself as a leader in privacy, he says, but is "working to erode privacy." Privacy, he says is "diametrically opposed to [Google's] business model, which is to collect as as much information as possible so they can sell it to marketers."

What Google wants to do is collect the right information that it can use to help marketers target their products to specific demographics. And the bifurcated business model, where the advertiser pays for the cost of the service and the public consumes it, isn't exactly unique to Web-based applications. Publishers and broadcasters have used it for years.

If you use more than a dozen different Google services, as I do, Google does indeed have a considerable amount of data stored on its servers about you and your activities. But I didn't find a company trying to build profiles about me. What I found was a company trying to figure out how to deliver advertising to more targeted segments of its users based on "contextual advertising," - a keyword in a Gmail message, for example - and the types of Web sites and pages they have visited in the past.

Google appears perplexed as to why it is being singled out for criticism, especially when it has made an effort to increase transparency and give users more control over privacy when using Google services.

A higher standard

But Google has a near monopoly in its core business. Because of this the company is being held to a higher standard with respect to privacy. As the focus by regulators and privacy advocates intensifies, Google should take a leadership role in developing pro-consumer privacy laws and best practices.

If it doesn't, Google could eventually lose the good will it has with its users, and regulators could make it the poster boy for privacy on the Web. Google need look no further than Microsoft to see how quickly public opinion can change for a defacto monopoly.

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