The Garden of Google and Evil"
Robert L. Mitchell
May 11, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
(Source URL: http://blogs.computerworld.com/in_the_garden_of_google_and_evil)