Does Google have an evil twin?

Google is developing a split personality, with one part that's socially conscious and develops great products, and another that's evil, invading people's privacy and stealing trade secrets, argues a prominent search blogger. But Google's biggest problem isn't on the corporate level, the problem is the human beings who work there.

Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling writes about the two Googles:

There's a funny and satirical 1989 British film called "How to Get Ahead in Advertising." The movie focuses on an ad executive, played by actor Richard E. Grant, who experiences an ethical and mid-life crisis. He develops a boil on his neck, which grows into a literal head (a kind of evil twin) and eventually takes over. That struck me as a kind of metaphor for Google today.

Indeed, it would ... appear there are now "two Googles." One is a socially conscious company that develops great products and stakes out bold, consumer-centric public positions. The other, Google's boil or "evil twin," is overly self-interested, not always candid and even hypocritical at times. I celebrate the former but am concerned about the seemingly growing influence of the latter.

For an example of the good Google, Sterling writes about Google Navigation, and its integration with Maps on Android handsets, which drove innovation in personal navigation, requiring Nokia to make its Ovi Maps free and forcing other companies like Telenav to innovate and respond. Other examples of the good Google: Its resistance of Chinese censorship, 2007 fight to open up the wireless market, and resisting Justice Department subpoenas to turn over search data.

Recently, Google released an anti-censorship transparency report, to show where governments have blocked citizens' access to Internet information.

Works with critics

While Google has a bad reputation for privacy protection, in most cases the company works with its critics, such as German concerns over Google Street View. More recently, the Czech government banned Street View. Google says it will work with Czech authorities to respond to the issues, and, until then, comply with the ban.

And Google offers a dashboard to tune target-based advertising or allow users to opt out entirely.

Sterling is less persuasive when he writes about the evil Google. His one solid point is is his criticism of the recent Google-Verizon deal, which does indeed smell suspiciously like a sellout of Google's previous defense of net neutrality. Still, in Google's defense here: Net neutrality is an incredibly complicated subject, resisting simplification and attempts to brand individual companies as good guys and bad guys. And Google argues that it needed to compromise to preserve net neutrality; failure to compromise could leave net neutrality entirely unprotected, but compromise preserves some net neutrality to some extent at least. Still, the Verizon deal is indeed a black eye against Google.

Other evidence cited by Sterling of Google's evil side: The company is considering aggressively mining data for advertising. But Google isn't alleged to be doing these things, just considering them. Moreover, I've been hearing about the threat of targeted advertising for 20 years, and I'm becoming less and less convinced that it's actually harmful. Clumsy advertising can be annoying, certainly. But harmful? If a site targets me with an advertisement for something that I'm more likely to want to buy -- where's the harm in that? Users have an array of tools to protect themselves against intrusive advertising, including adblocker browser add-ons, browser private modes, and anonymizing proxies.

Also, Skyhook, a location vendor that competes with Google, is suing the search company, charging anticompetitive, punitive behavior. The allegations brought by Skyhook are indeed grave -- and reminiscent of the exact behavior that got Microsoft in hot water more than a decade ago -- but, still, at this point they're just allegations brought by a competitor in a lawsuit.

People are the problem

The biggest problem for Google's karma isn't that it's being taken over by some fanciful evil entity growing from within. The biggest problem is more mundane than that: Its employees are mortal human beings, subject to the same temptations and flaws as everybody else. When Google truly does evil, it often turns out the problem isn't with corporate policy, it's individual employees abusing their authority. That doesn't excuse Google; as the employer, Google is responsible for the activities done by its employees in its name.

In the spring, news emerged that one of those mortal human beings who works for Google thought it would be a great idea to install Wi-Fi snoopers on its Street View cars. The company said it only stored unencrypted data, and deleted the information once it was discovered -- but, still, what on Earth was that guy thinking?

This month, Google fired one of its own engineers for spying on Google Voice call records, Gmail and Google Chat accounts to cyberstalk teen-agers.

A major problem for Google at this point is that the company is pervasive, it has amassed huge amounts of information, and that information can be abused to harm people. It's a problem faced by all cloud vendors. We entrust these companies with private and important information, just as we trust the people who work for our banks, law offices, and medical practitioners. In those kinds of institutions, there are strict cultural and legal measures in place to protect privacy of that data. People who violate privacy regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) face steep fines and even jail time. Google and other cloud providers need to develop the same protections, to ensure they continue to be worthy of our trust.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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