Google’s unhappy twelfth birthday

The web giant was once seen as a saviour of society and now it is branded as evil. But it is neither of those things.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

About 15 years ago, two computer science post-grads called Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University. By their own admission they didn’t particularly like each other. Fortunately for internet users across the globe, this didn’t stop them from working together on a new way of searching the web. Their solution was to rank pages according to their popularity, or its online equivalent: how many people back-linked to them. The result, initially called BackRub, was, in September 1998, incorporated as a private company. Of course, its name eventually became Google, playing upon the mathematical term Googol.

On its twelfth birthday Google has clearly changed a great deal. From an operation conducted from its founders’ garage, Google is now a multi-billion dollar empire run from the Googleplex in Silicon Valley. For many users, certainly in the US and Western Europe, Google is the internet, such is its dominance of search. Yet if the company’s size and influence has changed, that is as nothing compared with the transformation in perceptions. Google, once the saviour not just of the internet but of politics and society, has now become its own antithesis, a violator of people’s fundamental freedoms, a company that can’t do good for doing wrong.

Back in the day, the innovative, cutting-edge lustre that clung to everything that Google did was matched only by its ethical allure. It won countless awards, from Webbys for best technical achievement to a Wired ‘readers raves’ award for most intelligent agent on the internet. Which is quite an accolade. But just as impressive was a sense that Google was a force for good in the world, a sentiment brought out in a Wired article from 2001: ‘The company’s growth spurt has spawned a host of daunting questions that no data-retrieval system can easily answer. Should Google play ball with repressive foreign governments? Refuse to link users to “hate” sites? Punish marketers who artificially inflate site rankings? Fight the Church of Scientology’s attempts to silence critics?’

This was no ordinary company, then – it was a moral agent. It had the stature to set the terms of negotiation with national governments, it had the authority to censor wrongdoers, the power to punish unscrupulous businesses. ‘Things that would normally be side issues for another company’, Brin said at the time, ‘carry the weight of responsibility for us’.

‘The leadership of the internet is Sergey Brin’s to lose. For now, at least, in Google we trust’, concluded the Wired journalist. Google was seen as special, somehow. Unlike older businesses, unlike manufacturing companies with hard-worked employees, Google was seen as a business apart, one in which a hippyish collectivity trumped the older, exploitative workplace relations. Its internal righteousness simply mirrored its external mission: to be good. In 2004, Page explained to ABC News: ‘We have a mantra: “Don’t be evil”, which is to do the best things we know how for our users, for our customers, for everyone. So I think if we were known for that, it would be a wonderful thing.’ And known for that they certainly were. As the title of a 2005 book suggests, Google had changed everything: The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.

That Google, which, after all, is a business trying to scrape a living on the meagre returns of the internet, was never going to live up to the hype shouldn’t be a surprise. Its objective, via its numerous services, was always to monetise the information it gathers – especially as that information concerns us, the internet’s users. Yet if such a business concern was always going to look a little tawdry next to the high-flown rhetoric, not just of Brin or Page but of the internet’s numerous champions, the counterreaction to the reality of Google has been just as overblown. Google may not be the saviour of world, it may even be amoral; but it is most definitely not evil.

Yet that seems to be the way the pendulum is swinging. Describing Page, Brin and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, one blogger noted the switch perception: ‘Once the blue-eyed boys of everyone and arguably the most respected trio in the technology industry, they have been at the receiving end of bad press for several years now.’ And no year has been quite as bad as this one.

First there was the suspicion that Google’s dominance of internet searching was being used for iniquitous ends. Hence, in February this year, price comparison site Foundem, online shopping site Ciao, and legal and solicitor services site ejustice.fr instigated a European Commission investigation into whether Google is guilty of ‘abuse of dominant position’ – that is, of manipulating search results in favour of its own products. But this charge, serious as it is, pales beside the momentum that has built up around Google and its violations of privacy.

Google’s blasé disregard for the privacy of its users was not an especially new concern. Up until 2008, for instance, it held search logs for every IP address for a period of 18 months. Following pressure from privacy campaigners, Google was forced to halve the amount of time it keeps IP addresses on its search server logs. At the time, Google CEO Schmidt was unrepentant: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’

If Schmidt’s lack of contrition seemed arrogant, then, in light of the Street View fiasco this year, it now looks foolish. Initially, privacy concerns had been raised about the taking of pictures of people without their consent, and their subsequent publication as part of the Street View service. But then came the even more damaging revelations that Street View vehicles had not only been taking pictures of people, they had also been collecting people’s wifi data without consent. Despite claims that this was just a mistake, that Google proceeded to separate out the encrypted from the unencrypted and jettison the encrypted, suggests an activity more planned than accidental. Such was the outcry amongst privacy campaigners that legal proceedings have been launched against Google in the US and in several European countries, including Britain. A journalist normally sympathetic to Google at tech news site ZDNet captured the outrage: ‘This is intentional harvesting of data without consent… There shouldn’t be an easy out for Google on this one. This actually needs to be a catalyst for a change in corporate culture.’

It is a striking reversal. Google, from being deemed a universal force of good, is quickly being tarred as an enemy of basic freedoms. Writing as part of spiked’s debate on Google and privacy, Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch felt Google was singularly guilty of privacy violations: ‘Of all the providers and organisations working online, Google is the only one I know of to have roamed the streets taking data from the airwaves. That does put them in a special category.’ Moreover, Google’s sense of mission, its aloof existence above the normal sordid interests of business, is now seen as part of the problem. Slamming Google’s imperialistic attitude to other countries’ laws and regulations, Privacy International’s Simon Davies wrote: ‘The arrogance stems from the company coming to believe its own hype. That is a fatal mistake for any company. If you’re in an organisation that is universally hailed as being totally cool, as being cutting edge, as being the saviour of the world, then that belief will permeate the culture of the company.’

And yet is Google, by dint of its overweening sense of conviction, really turning into its opposite? Is it really doing no good? One suspects that just as Google was never the saviour of the world, neither is its death knell.

Tim Black is senior writer of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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