How long will Google retain a place in our hearts?

By Martin Vogel

Google Streetview car

Why do we love Google?  A question prompted by its tenth anniversary and the launch of the game-changing Google Chrome browser.  I’m in a love-hate relationship with Google – delighted by its products, worried about its encroachment into my life.  The dark side to Google’s brand foretells difficulties in the years to come.

Google’s products are not just good.  They’re elegant.  And free.  Each, individually, is relatively harmless.  It’s the all-embracing appeal of Google’s toys that makes me uneasy.  Every time it seduces me into adopting one of its services, Google deepens and broadens the picture it can paint of my life.  It knows what I want to know (Google Search).  It knows who I plan to see (Google Calendar); what I intend to do (seamless integration into my calendar of my tasks from Remember the Milk); where I am and where I’m going (Google Maps on my mobile); my prejudices and hobby-horses (Google Reader).  If I was a GMail user, it would know the contact details of all my friends and clients and what I was saying to them.

By rights, Google should enjoy the same kind of relationship with the public that Microsoft does – grudgingly accepted by the majority as a dominant force in our lives, but subject to opprobrium by a significant core of refuseniks who keep us alert to the dangers of its domination.  The risks presented by Google strike me as more worrying than those associated with Microsoft, broader in scope than the ID database being developed by the Government, yet we continue to love it.

Normally, consumers fall out of love with a company when a gap opens up between its values and it practices.  Google has already crossed this threshold with little discernible impact.  Its values are expressed in the words “Don’t be evil.”  Google’s code of conduct says:

“Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But “Don’t be evil” is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

But in 2006, Google disgusted human rights campaigners by agreeing to do the bidding of the censors in China.  Perhaps this issue was too remote from people’s daily experience to influence their feelings towards Google.  Or perhaps they gave Google the benefit of the doubt, agreeing with its contention that it was better to provided censored information than to provide no information at all.

Perhaps we love Google because the threat it poses remains potential rather than realised.  Last year, Privacy International – a human rights group which monitors surveillance and invasions of privacy – named Google as the worst among internet firms for privacy.  According to BBC News:

“Privacy International placed Google at the bottom of its ranking because of the sheer amount of data it gathers about users and their activities; because its privacy policies are incomplete and for its poor record of responding to complaints.

“‘While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy,’ read the report.”

Google responded that it aggressively protects users’ privacy.  But the company displays a complacency about its values similar to that of the broadcasters, who claimed to uphold truth only to find that their programme makers were systematically manufacturing falsehoods. One of the risks in Google’s massive user database is that the potential it creates to enable evil spreads beyond the company itself.  In July this year, a US court ordered Google to divulge to the media company Viacom the details of every user who had ever watched a video on YouTube – more than 100 million of them.  It subsequently won the right to anonymise the data.  But the episode demonstrates that Google’s database renders vulnerable the privacy of its users, regardless of Google’s intentions.

There are risks in this for Google.  Sooner or later, the public will become sensitive to the implications of the data that Google holds on them – quite possibly through some event which will do lasting damage to Google’s reputation.  At present, the company is structurally incapable of containing this risk.

Google’s mission – “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – may have begun as a consumer-facing value proposition.  But the logic of its business model compels it aggressively to push back the frontiers of privacy – both by bringing more and more private information (such as the contents of your living room) into the public domain, and by devising free and seductive ways to bring you online to disclose data about yourself.  As Nicholas Carr (via Chris Anderson) puts it:

“For Google, literally everything that happens on the Internet is a complement to its main business. The more things that people and companies do online, the more ads they see and the more money Google makes. In addition, as Internet activity increases, Google collects more data on consumers’ needs and behavior and can tailor its ads more precisely, strengthening its competitive advantage and further increasing its income. As more and more products and services are delivered digitally over computer networks — entertainment, news, software programs, financial transactions — Google’s range of complements expands into ever more industry sectors. That’s why cute little Google has morphed into The Omnigoogle…

“Because the marginal cost of producing and distributing a new copy of a purely digital product is close to zero, Google not only has the desire to give away informational products; it has the economic leeway to actually do it. Those two facts — the vast breadth of Google’s complements, and the company’s ability to push the price of those complements toward zero — are what really set the company apart from other firms. Google faces far less risk in product development than the usual business does. It routinely introduces half-finished products and services as online “betas” because it knows that, even if the offerings fail to win a big share of the market, they will still tend to produce attractive returns by generating advertising revenue and producing valuable data on customer behavior. For most companies, a failed launch of a new product is very costly. For Google, in general, it’s not. Failure is cheap.”

Google has been able to develop a culture which displays much lower risk aversion to product development than is typical elsewhere, a risk aversion that spills over into brushing aside long-standing societal values such as privacy.  Its business model incentivises this behaviour – a trend described by the analyst Scott Cleland as publicacy.

Cleland is by no means alone in expressing misgivings.  One of the most level-headed of internet commentators, John Naughton, said of Google’s mission to organise the world’s information:

“What we perhaps haven’t fully realised is that these guys really mean it. Their ambition is at least as megalomaniacal as Bill Gates’s vision of a computer on every desk running Microsoft software. So it’s time we started thinking about what a world dominated by Google would be like.”

As Google moves into its second decade, it is solidifying the foundations for that world domination with a new kind of browser which will make its cloud computing model – online applications replacing desktop ones – much more sustainable.  But the contradictory forces will be increasingly hard to contain.  The massive database on Google’s billions of users contains an accident waiting to happen.  The fondness with which we greeted Google’s tenth anniversary won’t be replicated in ten years’ time.

Image courtesy Byrion.