Trusting Google

December 15th, 2004 Comments Off on Trusting Google

A couple months ago, when Google Desktop was released, I wrote an entry saying I didn’t trust Google, especially because of certain dissonances in its declared policy (Don’t be evil) and its actions — for example, when Google News bowed to China’s government and censored search results.

At the time, some even called me a neurotic, but I’m not particularly bothered by this label. Where my privacy is concerned, I border on paranoia. If I don’t defend myself in this area, no one else will. For certain things, I really want to know what is happening, and how it’s happening.

Returning to the subject at hand, however, the question of whether trust Google or not is still open. With Google’s announcement of a new large project, a deal with various large universities in the US to digitize and make available online thousands of books belonging to the libraries of those universities, people are starting to consider the issue again. This time, three well-known names in the blogsphere offer their opinion.

Scott Rosenberg writes:

The public has a big interest in making sure that no one business has a chokehold on the flow of human knowledge. As long as Google’s amazing project puts more knowledge in more hands and heads, who could object? But in this area, taking the long view is not just smart — it’s ethically essential. So as details of Google’s project emerge, it will be important not just to rely on Google’s assurances but to keep an eye out for public guarantees of access, freedom of expression and limits to censorship.

Rosenberg welcomes Google’s deal as one of the most important undertakings of the company, but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Google is still a business, with commercial interests that may conflict with he needs of the general public. Today, he argues, we can reasonably trust Google because the company has a good record of making the right calls when it comes to pleasing its users. But that won’t last, he continues. Eventually, Google’s current leadership will give way to a new generation of executives whose priorities may not be so aligned with the user-geared policies in place today at the company.

Obviously, I agree. Google still has the special glamour of a company who always innovates in what it does, always gets it right, and keeps raising the bar on what people expect of Web applications. But, many times, that also causes people to forget some basic facts. No company aligns its commercial interests to those of their users out of generosity. Expecting Google to proceed differently is a mistake.

Dave Winer talks about that in his commentary of Rosenberg’s article:

Another way of looking at it: What if Microsoft were doing what Google is doing? Of course we wouldn’t let them do it without a very serious and probably very shrill examination. Well, I’m telling you, Google today is as dangerous as Microsoft, and I wouldn’t bet on their trustworthyness (sic), not without a lot more light having been shed on this. The technology industry is built on a foundation of arrogance and disdain for users. Google is too. You may not have seen it yet, but I have.

Winer’s commentary is interesting because Google is often compared with Microsoft, but in a completely opposite aspect — that of Microsoft’s killer, just as Microsoft killed IBM as a software company. That na├»ve comparison also obscures the questions that should be done about the control Google has over the data that belongs to its users. Commenting both Rosenberg’s article and Winer’s entry, Jon Udell says:

Bottom line: I think that stewardship of so much of our private as well as public information requires a lot more transparency than Google currently practices. For example, on the day that MSN Search was announced I pointed to a funny but tasteless prank that Google News played on Microsoft. Are we really supposed to believe that an algorithm chose that unflattering photo of Bill Gates? Of course it didn’t. But how can we know for sure?

Today, Google controls a enormous set of information, and I’m not talking about the documents in its search database. For Orkut, Google Mail, and Blogger, Google stores in its servers a huge amount of data on behalf of its users, many times under dubious service agreements. If we question Microsoft because of those issues, why shouldn’t we question Google? Fortunately, Google has been providing ways to export that data to others places, even though sometimes they only do it when people have already routed around initial barriers.

This stewardship, as Udell puts it, is a big responsibility, and Google still has not faced a crisis of such magnitude so as to allow us to judge how they would react if serious problems arose with its terms of service. In fact, this would be an good way to gain trust, defining explicitly how the company would handle problematic scenarios.

The issue of centralization is also important. Centralization is almost always considered an undesirable characteristic of protocols, products, and services. For the kind of products Google offers, however, centralization is desirable in some ways because it makes a better service possible. Also, most of the times, decentralization makes little sense for a business. Then again, alternative access is also important. Closed and limited access points always penalize users.

This is where I agree the most with the open source movement. Although there are still many issues to be solved where the commercial interests of a company and the need to provide assurance to users that their data won’t be lost or locked away clash, I still believe open source offers the best path to the protection of the public interests.

In short, as good as Google may be as a company, I still believe our role as users is to always watch what is going one. Otherwise, we risk the prospect of unpleasant surprises in the future. As Rosenberg also writes in his article, what happens if a new generation at Google decides it’s time to be more aggressive with its product portfolio?

So I maintain my position. I’ll use some of the products Google makes available to be, but I will make my choices understanding that the company may abruptly change its policies, as it’s its right. While the water is nice, I will keep swimming at the pool. But if push comes to shove, my options will be open. I believe that’s a sensible stance.

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