Is Google the next evil empire?

The news last week that Italian authorities have convicted three Google executives with criminal privacy violations got my attention for two reasons. One, the charges are based on a video that shows an autistic boy being bullied, a video that Google did not create or post. It was filmed by cell cameras and posted more than three years ago, and indeed one of the executives has since retired from Google. Two, none of the three live or work in Italy, and a fourth executive – a product manager – was acquitted. We truly live in a global village, and one in which the legal operations move slower and slower. As someone who was bullied as a child, I get this, although not sure that justice really was served here.

This case comes on top of the company’s missteps with Buzz, where it had to alter the default privacy settings after a rather embarrassing launch and lots of fanfare.

Has Google become more evil, or is it just the contentious times we live in that makes this sad state of affairs possible? One thing is clear, though: Google is becoming bigger and buying more and more companies that have products or services that I use. Picnik (online photo editing) and Etherpad (online real time document collaboration) are just two of the more recent acquisitions. The Etherpad acquisition was also a bit troubling, where the company had first announced they were turning off the service, then had to restore it after numerous complaints.

I still think the vast majority of people at Google adhere to the company’s ten founding principles, which is more than I can say for my dealings with Microsoft over the years. Certainly both companies are hyper-competitive. But the very nature and pervasiveness of Google’s online services makes it more pernicious, and has a greater potential for abuse, as the recent news indicates. But it also means that they can turn more quickly when they make a mistake: the Etherpad issue was resolved in a day or so. Imagine Microsoft trying to do that. Indeed, try finding something similar to this document on Microsoft’s Web site: you will find a lot of corporate doublespeak, rather than the plain spoken “Ten Things” that Google professes.

While all this was going down in Italy, I was reviewing what information Google has stored on me in Google Accounts. If you haven’t had a look at your “dashboard” lately, it is instructive to see exactly what Google can track on you. In my case, I use a ton of different Google products, and recorded for posterity include the following:

  • My most posts to my Blogger blogs
  • What items Google Alerts has located that mention my keywords
  • The three people I most often email in my contact list
  • The most recent Google Doc that I have edited and how many of them have been supposedly “trashed” but are still accessible
  • My complete Google Chat history of more than 1500 conversations
  • The photos stored in Picasa, fans and favorites included
  • My history of calls made on my Google Voice account
  • My most recent Web browsing history, including search terms, images downloaded, maps visited and news items read
  • And there are 12 other Google products that aren’t yet tracked, including AdSense, Knol, and Groups too.

You get the picture: there is a lot you can learn about me when you scroll through all this data, and a lot that I would prefer remain private. All it takes is someone to guess a single password, too. That is scary, and I hope that “do no evil” thing is still very much in force in the years to come.

9 thoughts on “Is Google the next evil empire?

  1. Pingback: Twitted by shetech

  2. Many people assume autism is a disease. Is being left handed a disease? How about being good at math but bad at spelling. Autism is a spectrum. People on the left hand side of it function in most ways far above average. Those on the right, not so much.

  3. We have gradually given over our privacy as companies mine us for consumer data. It’s a frightening thought… The kind of advertising we saw in “Minority Report” is not so far off. And while we should not permit ourselves to live in fear, nevertheless we should learn to exercise appropriate caution when it comes to our private information. My data is just as transparent as David’s is, and it’s a little creepy when you come down to it.

  4. David

    Thank you for this thoughtful post on the potential for evil that Google represents. Up until recently, I haven’t been concerned about all of the data Google has on my me and my interests believing that they had promised to keep anything private unless I specifically decided to advertise something.

    Buzz was a shock to me. I couldn’t believe that Google had automatically connected people in a social network making the names of your other contacts public. I found that highly disturbing. It appeared to be exactly the kind of abuse that I never expected from them, exploiting their customer’s private information for Google’s own gain.

    I’ve had implicit faith in them up until that point. Even the scanning of millions of books I could see as a great social benefit even thought it probably infringes on the rights of some authors. Google’s ethical standard seemed to be very high and they have been considered one of the most highly respected brands on earth. Their decision to take on the Chinese government seemed to me like just the kind of thing I expected of an ethical company taking a stand for what is right for people, for the world, and for the future of the internet. They had the potential to alter the course of companies working in the international realm and their cooperation with repressive regimes. I’m afraid now they may not be able to achieve what they’d hoped through their seemingly foolish blunder of exposing personal gmail related information (exactly what the Chinese hackers had been after). Most significantly, Google did so in a clearly exploitive manner seemingly intended as a countermeasure to the strengths of Twitter and Facebook.

    Shame on Google. I hope those responsible for releasing Buzz without being thoroughly vetted are appropriately reprimanded. Google has insisted that doing no evil was their uppermost standard and that they would not put profitability ahead of their customers’ privacy.

    Their blunder with Buzz is a direct parallel to the whole series of similar blunders by Facebook over the years in attempting to leverage the personal information of their users.

    Andrew Raimist
    http://RaimistDesign.com

  5. This is interesting. On the issue of the Italian convictions you will find those strongly against it, and then you will find pages like this that only use it as a segue into how corrupt corporations are. The Italian judge probably read too much of this and too little of that (that is if his opinion wasn’t already paid for).

    It’s true. Corporations often lose sight of their responsibilities to people as people, not as consumers. But is that wrong made right by punishing officers? Why make it a criminal case instead of a civil matter? And what can a company do more than what Google has done in making their mantra “do no evil”? If you go to far, you will have a shareholder suit.

    It seems like both the Italian judge and dissidents have one sentiment in common: the desire to punish success. To see this side of the coin, there’s an interesting blog here.

  6. David,

    Very informative write up.. Sorta scary for sure…. Obviously if current Evil Empire(MS)had done this EVERYONE would be up in arms, but since it’s Google they seem to get a pass this and just about everything else…I think we need some better privacy laws that explicitly state you can’t have any information on me that I don’t approve. I guess Google would be SOL if that ever happened..

    /jc

  7. Hi David,

    I agree with you. As a young lawyer with the U.S. Dept. of Justice Antitrust Division (with a BS in computer science) I was part of the team that sued Microsoft. They really did seem evil to me. And as a lawyer and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley (and perpertual early adopter) I have been embracing Google’s products (even before they were Google’s products, e.g., Grand Central, JotSpot, etc.) even before they were Google’s products.

    However, if Google isn’t evil just yet, it certainly doesn’t feel like my best friend anymore. This came into sharp focus when they disabled “Saved Locations” in Google Maps. I loved this feature, and had meticulously maintained it. By default, Google would save every location you looked up on Maps, but you could turn that feature off, while still saving those locations you wanted to have at your disposal with a few keystrokes. The beauty was that it would list locations from your saved list as you type, just as Gmail does with addresses. But alas, they turned this feature off–unless you enable Web History, such that you save every place you search. In the blink of an eye, all of my carefully saved locations were gone.

    I get it though–they decided they couldn’t properly monetize my activity that way. The cost of saved locations is having everything recorded (and frankly, I still don’t know if it works — they seem to want to corral us into using My Maps, which I do use, but for a different purpose).

    This is where we get into the concept of pay for service. I’d rather pay $5 or $10 a year, far less than it costs Google to maintain that list for me, and just have the basic functionality I want. But alas, most people don’t want Chinese menu of services — they want it ALL for free. Well, free has a cost, it’s called your privacy.

    I want my saved map locations back!

    Jim

  8. Well. Thanks for interest article. I thought your concerning is maybe unappropriated as Google costumer. If you want to get high level of protection for your personal information you might not register any web service isn’t it? Google provide for our needs and I guess there thinking is not evil. So if you really have that concerning why you have linked-in account? Just I wondering about that…

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