|Illustration: Sam Griffin
As anyone who has passed within earshot of me over the last few years knows, I’m a Googleophile. Of course, this hardly makes me Robinson Crusoe. Millions of people around the globe believe Google is more than merely a hyper-successful technology company; it is a force for human advancement.
Central to Google Inc.’s vast empire is the issue of trust. As users, we readily use the company’s impressive array of free online services – the most popular of which is still its flagship internet search engine – in return for granting it permission to retain our personal information, which Google uses to deliver us advertising so targeted that it hardly seems like an imposition at all.
I respect Google. At times, my trust in the company creeps beyond the limits of reason. I trust them with my emails, even though they place ads for flowers and chocolates alongside romantic messages to my girlfriend, like a love coach waving me in. They also hit me with ads for pesticide when I’m sending emails about Anthill – an ever-present reminder that algorithms, not necessarily common sense, drive the Google machine.
A MATTER OF TRUST
A friend recently put it this way: “I have been trusting Google with my personal information for seven years, but I have only been banking online for three.”
In many respects, it is not difficult to argue that this trust is justified. When the US Justice Department demanded to see a sample of users’ personal search queries earlier this year, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL and others rolled over. Google did not. Cynics claimed that this was purely a business decision. After all, Google stands to lose millions of dollars in advertising revenue if users are given cause to question the privacy of their personal information in Google’s hands.
But Google has always done things differently. It is not just another company but the vanguard of the new media wave. And even though the company recently agreed to enforce censorship regulations in exchange for gaining access to China’s booming online market, its presence in China, however curtailed, is sure to have a liberalising influence. To be sure, there is a commercial case for everything Google does. But surely it’s not to the exclusion of all else. Not from a company with a mission statement that reads: “Don’t be evil”.
So it is disturbing to see several recent events cast the company that I adore in a new, less flattering light.
Firstly, it appears that Google wants us to stop “googling”. It has always been a testament to Google’s profound impact on the world that the company’s name was adopted as a verb. In fact, “google” (as in “to google”) was recently admitted into the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. But lawyers have another word for it – “genericide” – an impressively evocative term for when a company’s registered trademark becomes a generic term.
Only the most successful and unique trademarks may morph into generic vernacular. Think Frisbee, Esky, Kleenex, Panadol, Escalator, Hoover, Band-Aid, Xerox, Popsicle, Velcro, Thermos, Hi-Liter, Alfoil, Jeep and Lycra.
Google’s trademark lawyers have been sending out thousands of letters to individuals and organisations requesting that they refrain from using Google’s trademark in generic context. One such letter was sent to Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post in August. Google’s legal eagles even suggested helpful ways for Mr Ahrens and his colleagues to avoid such trademark genericide in the future:
|Appropriate: He ego-surfs on the Google search engine to see if he’s listed in the results. Inappropriate: He googles himself.
Appropriate: I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party. Inappropriate: I googled that hottie.
It raises the question: despite the hip tone of the letters, is this action something of a litmus test for determining when a company crosses over from fresh, exciting upstart to plump corporate overlord?
A case has been made that Google needs to send these cease and desist letters out for their trademark to remain valid. But loss of trademark due to genericisation involves far more than the odd person “googling for hotties”. But what other explanation? Most internet companies would happily trade their entire executive team for the level of ubiquity that Brand Google has cultivated.
A CATALOGUE OF HUMAN INTENSIONS
In August, the world was shocked to learn that America Online (AOL), the fourth most popular internet search engine in the United States, had published online approximately 20 million web search queries made by 657,000 AOL users over a three-month period. The unauthorised move was an attempt to assist academic researchers. While the users were said to be anonymous, for their names had been replaced with numbers, it took a matter of days for a New York Times reporter to track down user No. 4417749 – Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow living in Lilburn, Georgia. When the reporter read part of the list of her searches for the past three months, she exclaimed (cue Grandma’s voice from the Tweety Pie cartoon), “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life. I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”
The combined databases of Google, AOL and other internet search providers contain the vast catalogue of human intensions. Ms Arnold’s search history revealed little more than an interest in medical ailments and pet dogs. But search histories of other AOL users revealed adultery, murder plots, pregnancy scares and fraud. People tend to tell a computer what they would never tell another human. So, in many ways, this kind of breach of privacy is worse than the betrayal of confidence by a close friend. It’s worth mentioning here that AOL’s market share of online search is minuscule compared with Google’s. You get the picture.
Then came the news that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been acting more like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie than a couple of Stanford computer geeks-made-good. Late last year, the two billionaires purchased a former Qantas 767 jet for use as a private “party plane”. However, a lawsuit filed by the Oklahoman aviation designer responsible for the jet’s retrofit led to revelations that the typically low-key Page and Brin had requested elaborate accoutrements, such as hammocks hung from the plane’s ceiling, and that he had witnessed a petulant spat between the two over who would have the larger bed size, which Google CEO Eric Schmidt mediated by saying, according to a Wall Street Journal report, “Sergey, you can have whatever bed you want in your room; Larry, you can have whatever kind of bed you want in your bedroom. Let’s move on.” Indeed.
I raise this point not because I begrudge Page and Brin their fortune, but because the sustained success of Google Inc., and the privacy of millions of users, is heavily dependent on their sober management of the extremely sensitive information stored within the Googleplex.
I want to believe that as Google expands to a size befitting its collective genius, that it will fill this extra mass with more of the brilliant and profoundly helpful technology that paved its ascent. I’m trusting that it won’t fill that space with bureaucracy and fall into a defensive crouch like a weary old man protecting the stash won back when there was nothing to lose. But even more, I’m trusting that Google won’t grow reckless.
In the long term, the only thing acting in favour of keeping our private information private is Google’s business model, which relies on user confidence that their lives are not being tracked by a Big Brother-type entity (especially with links to government) – not the good will of Larry, Sergey, Eric and their successors.
As a wise man once said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Paul Ryan is an editor and senior writer at Australian Anthill.