The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Owned by Google?

I have a confession to make. I love Google. I also fear Google. But I can’t leave Google. We’ve been together for so many years, and shared so much. It’s given me so much, but it can take even more away. Don’t get me wrong. Google’s been very good to me. But I’ve heard that there are some people in its past, before me, that it didn’t treat very well. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I like some of its friends. I’m know some of its friends don’t like me, and I hate to think of Google telling them everything it knows about me. And, I never know if it will turn on me or not. So I can’t walk out. Google has way too much on me. In a sense, you might say Google owns me. And what Google owns, Google can sell out.

It started out so well. When we met, Google was just a simple little search engine. Kind of plain, but willing to get just about anything for me, and all I had to do was ask. And it had a kind of charm about it, complete with a rags-to-riches success story. Yet, it stayed simple in spite of its success. On the surface anyway. Things aren’t so simple now.

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Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.comIt’s happened to all of us. Right? You start a relationship without really knowing what you’re getting into, because the other person has some pretty cool qualities like the ones I mentioned above. How can you not admire someone who started out in a garage and ended up with a $319 million home? So, when I got an invite to try Gmail, I jumped on it. It didn’t bother me much that Google could read my email. It was a new relationship, sure, but aren’t all relationships built on trust? It wasn’t long before I was using Google Calendar. OK. So now Google knew where I went and what I was doing at all times. But I was volunteering the information. Right?

From there, I just deeper and deeper in. Then came Google Reader. That’s when Google had me. I knew I was in love. I handed over my feeds. Sure, now Google knows what I’m reading (and where I’m going, and who I’m emailing). But it’s a relationship, right? Remember trust? My head was still spinning from Google Reader when Google Documents caught my eye. Now this was truly amazing. Nobody had ever quite understood my needs in that way before, how I needed to do everything all in one place, and from any location. And Google made it easy for me to do everything I needed. Without, I might add, every leaving.

Then Google started handing me things I didn’t even know I needed yet, like Google Notebook. Now I had a place to put whatever I wanted. It was like an extension of my brain. Sure, it belonged to Google. But so did I. We were committed, right? And if I ever started to think about how much of my life belonged to Google now, there was always Google Video to take my mind off of it. The web became a television on my desktop, with as many channels as users. I’m pretty sure I was glued to the screen when I said yes to letting Google track my web history. Sure, now it new everywhere I went whenever I left Google. But, that’s OK because we’re…

Wait a minute.

Now it seems like Google wants to run my life.

Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said gathering more personal data was a key way for Google to expand and the company believes that is the logical extension of its stated mission to organise the world’s information.

Asked how Google might look in five years’ time, Mr Schmidt said: “We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation.

“The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ”

I know. I know. If we were chatting over coffee right now, while I went on about my nice-but-controlling boyfriend this would be the part where you’d say “Duh!” That’d be probably due to the fact that you were one of the people who tried to tell me a long time ago what Google was up to.

Privacy is a matter of perspective. Different people are concerned about different things. For example, cell phones allow the network to always know where you are. This is useful for sending targeted ads to your cell phone based on your location, like telling you about a nearby restaurant. Imagine if all data were available to everyone. It already seems to be true: random companies seem to know how much money I owe on my mortgage, and I’ve never heard of these companies. Based on information companies have about you, they can target specific ads (and make offers based on what I owe on my mortgage).

I think a big problem is coming. Google is not about searching; it’s about collecting and mining data. Their purpose is to make money because this is a capitalist system. But where are the checks and balances?

…Google archives everything. You can’t really delete anything. When data appears on the Internet, they are like a kudzu vine that covers everything almost instantly.

Think about Orwell’s thought police and thought crime, and how history could be revised to suit political needs. Does Google have this power?

According to what I’m hearing, it does and it wants more.

Google’s declaration of intent was publicised at the same time it emerged that the company had also invested £2m in a human genetics firm called 23andMe. The combination of genetic and internet profiling could prove a powerful tool in the battle for the greater understanding of the behaviour of an online service user.

…Privacy protection campaigners are concerned that the trend towards sophisticated internet tracking and the collating of a giant database represents a real threat, by stealth, to civil liberties.

That concern has been reinforced by Google’s $3.1bn bid for DoubleClick, a company that helps build a detailed picture of someone’s behaviour by combining its records of web searches with the information from DoubleClick’s “cookies”, the software it places on users’ machines to track which sites they visit.

…Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University and chairman of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said there was a real issue with “lock in” where Google customers find it hard to extricate themselves from the search engine because of the interdependent linkage with other Google services, such as iGoogle, Gmail and YouTube. He also said internet users could no longer effectively protect their anonymity as the data left a key signature.

“A lot of people are upset by some of this. Why should an angst-ridden teenager who subscribes to MySpace have their information dragged up 30 years later when they go for a job as say editor of the Financial Times? But there are serious privacy issues as well. Under data protection laws, you can’t take information, that may have been given incidentally, and use it for another purpose. The precise type and size of this problem is yet to be determined and will change as Google’s business changes.”

Yikes. Plenty of people have already had that happen to them. That is, Google serving up their ill-considered utterances of days gone by, to anyone who asks. Just ask Kiwi Camara.

On Kiwi Camara’s biographical Web site, the 22-year-old legal phenom lists several accolades — his prestigious law fellowship, a coveted federal appeals court clerkship and, not to be forgotten, his graduation magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.

Perhaps emboldened by his accomplishments, Camara instructs readers to do something that, even for average people, could be considered career suicide.

“Google me!” the Web site says.

The results reveal something from Camara’s past that has followed him throughout his brief career and that last week may have cost him a teaching job at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington County.

Camara, a native Filipino who grew up in Hawaii and enrolled at Harvard Law School at age 16, had been on track to become an assistant professor at GMU’s law school. But his candidacy was derailed after the law school’s dean, Daniel D. Polsby, publicized the possible appointment so he could hear what students had to say before making a final decision.

During Camara’s first year at Harvard Law School in 2002, he fueled a controversy when he wrote racist remarks in a voluminous summary of a 1948 Supreme Court decision that barred restrictive covenants based on race. He then posted the writing on a Web site designed to help other law students.

In the five years since he wrote the racist phrase, it has surfaced from campus to campus, job interview to job interview — a predicament that raises a broader question perfectly fit for these Google times: What’s the appropriate standard for judging a teenager years later?

Of course, anybody can search Google for info on anyone else. But Google also has a habit of handing over information to other entities, like law enforcement and governments.

Google Inc., which refused in the past year to hand over user search data to U.S. authorities fighting children’s access to pornography, said yesterday that it was complying with a Brazilian court’s orders to turn over data that could help identify users accused of taking part in online communities that encourage racism, pedophilia and homophobia.

The difference, it says, is scale and purpose.

The Justice Department wanted Google’s entire search index, billions of pages and two months’ worth of queries, for a broad civil case. Brazil, by contrast, is looking for information in specific cases involving Google’s social networking site, Orkut.

“What they’re asking for is not billions of pages,” said Nicole Wong, Google associate general counsel. “In most cases, it’s relatively discrete — small and narrow.”

Google released a statement yesterday saying it was complying with the Brazilian court orders following a ruling Thursday by a Brazilian judge that threatened Google with a fine of $23,000 a day for noncompliance.

It’s been an especially troubling month in our relationship, because in addition to all of the above Google seems willing to participate in censorship.

Google has agreed to block four video clips on its YouTube Web site that the government of Thailand said insulted its king.

But in a letter to the minister of communications, Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, Google said two other videos that had angered Thailand’s military government would stay on the site, because they did not break laws against offending the monarchy.

“They appear to be political comments that are critical of both the government and the conduct of foreigners,” said the letter, signed by Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel. “Because they are political in nature, and not intended insults of His Majesty, we do not see a basis for blocking these videos.”

The government, which blocked access to YouTube last month when clips mocking King Bhumibol Adulyadej first appeared, gave copies of the letter to reporters on Friday. The company could not immediately be reached for comment.

But now I recall that this isn’t the first time. There was the business of censoring searches in China last year. That was around the same time that Google started getting into politics, and making friends with people who have friends who also like to gather information on people.

Now, with a database already bigger than anybody else’s and more information on more people than I can even begin to imagine, Google wants government records.

By providing free consulting and some software, Google is helping state governments make reams of public records that are now unavailable or hard to find online easily accessible to Web surfers.

The Internet search company hopes to eventually persuade federal agencies to employ the same tools — an effort that excites advocates of open government but worries some consumer-privacy experts.

Google plans to announce Monday that it has already partnered with four states — Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia — to remove technical barriers that had prevented its search engine, as well as those of Microsoft and Yahoo, from accessing tens of thousands of public records dealing with education, real estate, health care and the environment.

These newly available records will not be exclusive to the search engines owned by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of more than 65 watchdog groups that advocate greater government openness and accountability, lauded Google’s efforts. Since the September 11 attack on the United States, many public agencies have tried to restrict certain data from the Internet due to concerns about national security.

…Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said many public health and financial records should not necessarily be widely available because they often contain citizens’ Social Security numbers. Such information should be redacted from records regardless of whether they’re viewed online or in person at a government office, he said.

Rotenberg also said Google has a “checkered past” on privacy, noting that the company tracks Internet search users who access government data in order to target ads at them. EPIC recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission urging it to investigate Google regarding such activities, as well as its proposed acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick

I think I’m beginning to see where this going, and what my future — our future — with Google could look like. And, of course, it’s what someone tried to tell me much earlier.

IT HAS swallowed Amazon by 2008 and destroyed The New York Times by 2014. By 2020 its personal profiles of the shopping habits, interests and dark passions of every computer user on the planet has far surpassed the antique files of the CIA and the NSA.

It’s a scenario that is diametrically opposed to Google’s motto of “do no evil” but fears are growing that everyone’s favouritesearch engine company is in danger of evolving into a sinister corporate Big Brother.

While executives at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California celebrated a 92 per cent increase in net income yesterday, computer users across the globe were busy downloading an eight-minute fake documentary that illustrates the concerns users have about the rise of Google.

The short video, available on www.robinsloan.com/epic, shows a possible future in which Google merges with Amazon and creates Googlezon, a vast conglomerate that unites an individual’s consumer tastes and current interests. As a result it defeats old media such as newspapers and television and provides a personalised news service, but one riddled with errors and conspiracies.

They even drew me a picture.

So, to tell the truth, I should have seen it coming. Now I’m worried it might be too late. But then again, others before me have gotten away. And Google says I can leave if I want. So can anyone else. I can go back to my own place and lock Google out.

But I’m not sure I really can leave. Where would I go? After all, Google has a habit of buying up cool start-ups. Google can guy just about anything. They just bought my RSS feed along with Feedburner. So, chances are no matter where I went, Google would track me down.

Maybe it’s time to face the truth. Maybe I really do belong to Google. Maybe I’m just Google’s “biatch.”

Maybe we all are, or will be. Someday.

6 Comments

  1. OH GOD. I just realized that I WAS owned by Google! I have to admit I would use google for everything, for questions, advice, images, and even traffic directions! I stopped using Google a few weeks ago, but until I read this article I had no idea what Google could possibly do to me!

    I won’t lie, I have a gmail account that I use still, it’s a habit. Using google search engine was a habit as well. I had it set as my homepage for as long as I can remember. I mean, it was simple and easy. Who wouldn’t love it.

    But then a friend of mine found a new search engine, hakia.com http://www.hakia.com while doing research for a school paper and turned me on to it. It was better than google in retrieving information, THEN one day I read the hakia blog and found that THEY DO NOT TRACK YOU OR PUT COOKIES ON YOUR COMPUTER, http://blog.hakia.com/?p=91 — it explained everything. Does anyone know if there are other search engines that don’t search you while you search?

    In any case, I am Google search free!

    The next step is to dump my Gmail account… :(

  2. For the record, this post was intended to be somewhat tongue in cheek while also showing some of Google’s history. When you put it all together, it’s interesting. That’s for sure.

    I’m not “Google-Free,” though. I’m not sure if I want to go through the trouble. But your comment makes me think that it might be interesting to see what “non-Google” sources provide the same service.

    There are several, but from what I’ve seen there isn’t yet an web email that beats Gmail.

  3. I still love Google. Bad things might happen in the future, they might not. I have enough to worry about so I’ll just let this happen. I might regret it later but atleast I heard the message so I can’t ever say I didn’t know. Who ever thought sitting in front of a computer could jeopardize my future? Weird and scary!

  4. A significant piece of the picture here, for me, is that Google is a corporation. It has hopes and dreams of pursuing the ideals and values of its founders, but the founders no longer own it outright.

    So, it will go where its shareholders take it, along with its incredible inventory of data.

    Another key piece is the transition from indexing other peoples’ data stored anywhere, to storing the data themselves, and recently to hosting free business-oriented sites. At what point in the future might their shareholders challenge them to take ownership of the data, charging for access to it, or denying access to it if you’re not a paying client?

    Google Desktop was the first tool to make me skittish… yeah, it gave me quick, easy access to info inside email messages or documents wherever it might reside. But to continue upgrading to the better and better versions, they were asking for permission to house indexed info about my personal/business computer on their servers.

    Suddenly it was clear that my personal computer might not remain so personal unless I was careful.

    And, yup, I’m concerned about the possibility that, 20 years down the road, folks may be looking at all of the web searches Google attributed to me a quarter-century earlier. Disquieting, to say the least.

  5. Let’s not forget, although I can’t remember the source and Googling is (conveniently) difficult on the subject, that Google Books was never really meant for people. The idea is, and admittedly this is a little wacky, that they’re hoping that at some point that they’ll have an AI to give this information to.

    I think that they’re hoping that, someday, Google’s Pagerank system might wake up.

    I never though Skynet would end up with such a silly name.

    On the other hand, privacy is really worst when there’s differentials involved. If EVERYBODY has no privacy, then does privacy matter anymore?

  6. Pingback: Property of Google - The Relentless Stream of Consciousness

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