Google not only gathers vast amounts of personal data, it aspires to
global domination - and that's creepy, writes John Naughton
A few months ago Bill Gates let slip an interesting thought about Google in
an interview. It reminded him, he said, of Microsoft in its honeymoon period
- ie. the decade 1985-95. This is the first time in recorded history that Gates
has dignified a competitor by actually naming it in public: generally, he speaks
only in paranoid generalities. But the Microsoft chairman knows trouble when
he sees it, and Google does indeed pose a long-term threat to his profitable
That's par for the course in the capitalist jungle. A more important question
is whether Google spells trouble for the rest of us in the long run. And the
answer to that could well be yes.
To understand why, we need to look back. It may be hard to credit it now, but
Microsoft was once a cheeky start-up, run by college dropouts with long hair
and a penchant for fast cars. It was founded at a time when the fledgling personal
computer business was a labyrinth of incompatible hardware and software systems.
In 1981, IBM effectively defined a de-facto hardware standard; and its erstwhile
partner Microsoft defined the software standard by providing the operating system
for the new, accountant-friendly IBM PC. Thus was order brought to an unruly
industry. And thus was the foundation laid of Microsoft's subsequent prosperity
- and its monopoly on desktop software.
We all know the rest of the story. Microsoft has grown and grown, to the point
where its monopoly lock on desktop software makes it impossible for an upstart
to supplant it: the world's organisations are so locked into the Microsoft Way
that they cannot contemplate moving to a different operating system, even if
it is cheaper or technically superior.
Yet, strangely, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Microsoft's position
is unassailable. Granted, it has a stranglehold on the PC platform, and anyone
who tries to compete on that territory is doomed to lose. The significance of
Google's challenge is that it hasn't chosen to fight on that ground. Instead,
it seeks to make the platform irrelevant.
And it's doing it. Here's an illustration. Ask any random audience of computer
users the following questions. Who uses Microsoft software? (All hands go up.)
Who uses open source software? (No hands.) Who uses Google? (All hands go up).
'Well', you say, 'that's a funny thing because you're all users of open source
software: Google runs on Linux.' After the rueful laughter has died away, ponder
on what that means. People want a particular computing service (in this case
search), and don't really care what platform it's delivered on.
Since its inception in 1999, Google has focused almost exclusively on providing
services that are platform-independent in this way. Its search engine can be
accessed from any browser. Ditto Google Groups, Google Images, Google News,
Froogle, Blogger, Google Mail, Google Talk and Google Maps. A few of its offerings
(notably Google Earth, Desktop Search and Picasa, a neat program for handling
and organising digital photographs) are written specifically to run under Microsoft
Windows, but the most heavily used services are all independent of operating
systems and hardware. The company has taken Scott McNealy's aphorism - 'the
network is the computer' - and turned it into reality.
All of which is bad news for Mr Gates, whose prosperity is based on the proposition
that the platform is the computer. But is it good news for the rest of us? Google's
most intensively used services are accessed via the net, so all the data involved
flows through Google's servers. And since these data are often fragments of
intensely personal information - email, web clickstreams, instant messages,
VoIP conversations - a single company is in a position to know more about each
one of us than anyone would have thought possible even a decade ago.
Consider Gmail, Google's web-mail service. This provides two gigabytes
of storage to each subscriber - enough to ensure that you never again have to
delete a message. The flipside is that your messages reside forever on a Google
server. What's more, Gmail is free because it is funded by advertising: Google's
software scans every email, identifies key phrases, and puts what it regards
as relevant ads on the right-hand side of the screen.
If you think that's creepy, you're right. Google's response is that
the messages aren't actually 'read', that it's just a process akin to the one
in which email messages are scanned by spam-blocking software. But that's disingenuous,
because the ads selected for display are logged (they have to be, so that advertisers
can be billed) and those logs will inevitably reveal something of the context,
if not the content, of the scanned messages. Anyone who uses Gmail is therefore
sacrificing a degree of privacy compared with someone who uses a conventional
email service. That's why privacy and civil liberties groups have attacked Gmail
on the grounds that it violates the trust of email service users - in particular
non-Gmail users who send messages to Gmail subscribers. They point out that
scanning creates lower expectations of privacy in the email medium and so establishes
a potentially dangerous precedent.
Google's apparently unstoppable momentum is beginning to raise alarm bells
across an industry that hitherto admired the company's cheeky, upstart ethos
and the brilliance of its technology. This, after all, was an outfit that declared
in its prospectus that its motto would be 'Don't do evil'. The implicit message
from the co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was: 'We're basically good
guys. You can trust us.' But that was then, and this is now, when Google has
evolved into a multi-billion dollar corporation with aspirations to global domination.
Its corporate mission, remember, is 'to organise the world's information and
make it universally accessible and useful'. And when these guys say 'world',
they mean it.
So there's a strong possibility that Google will indeed turn out to be Bill
Gates's worst nightmare, transforming his grip on the PC platform into a wasting
asset. But the corollary of that is a world in which millions - perhaps billions
- of people will become users of Google services, and that the company will
become custodians of their most intimate data. The day will come when
Google knows more about each of us than we realise. And knowledge is power.
Should we trust a US corporation with it? You only have to ask the
question to know the answer.
Ten things you didn't know about Google
1 It's a calculator. Type '25 miles in kilometres' (without the quotes)
into the search box and see what happens.
2 It can be manipulated to produce desired results. Try typing 'miserable
failure' (without the quotes) and see what happens. This is called Googlebombing.
3 Googlewhacking is a game where you have to think of a single word
which, when typed into the search box, will produce just a single 'hit'.
4 How many pages does Google index? Answer: nobody knows. Google used
to publish a number under the search box (when last seen it was over 8 billion)
but it has stopped doing that - possibly because Yahoo is now claiming to index
20 billion pages.
5 It does really useful online maps of the UK. Go to maps.google.co.uk.
And you can search for restaurants, churches, bars or schools just by typing
the appropriate term (e.g. 'restaurants in Bedford') in the search box.
6 Google's two co-founders are each worth about $7 billion. They are
just 32 years old.
7 If you use Google's webmail, the messages reside forever on a Google
8 Google's power means that it knows more about each of us than any
other internet search engine.
9 Google's Gmail software scans every email, identifies key phrases,
and puts what it regards as relevant ads on the right-hand side of the screen.
10 Its services, such as Google Images, Google News, Froogle, Blogger,
Google Mail and Google Maps can be accessed from any browser.