Big Brother Google?

The danger in digital technology lies in the concentration of information – and thus in a concentration of power

“Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto.” To Google’s credit, if you google that sentence, you can find reference to a debate on that claim that I took part in recently.

As it happens, I have a complex relationship with Google. I have fed at its trough many times – as a personal guest; as an advisory board member of Stop Badware, an NGO it sponsors; and as a speaker at its events. I also sit on the board of 23andMe, co-founded by the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

But I also sit on the boards of Yandex in Russia, one of a small number of companies around the world who beat Google in their local markets, and of WPP, a worldwide advertising/marketing company famous for its rivalry with Google. Finally, I’m suspicious of concentrations of power of any kind.

So, I welcomed the chance to clarify my thinking. I took the con side of the debate: Google does not violate its motto. However, I do think there is a danger that someday it could.

The danger lies in the concentration of information – arguably a concentration of power – that Google represents. Google doesn’t merely point users to existing information on the Web; it also collects information that it doesn’t share about its users’ behavior. If you can use patterns in Google searches to track flu outbreaks and predict a movie’s commercial prospects, can you also use it to forecast market movements or even revolutions?

Even if Google uses personal information only for their own benefit (whatever that means), it represents an attractive target for governments. In fact, Google generally fights government requests for personal information. (It was Yahoo, not Google, that gave personal information to China’s government, which then jailed a blogger.)

Google has become a de facto gatekeeper of information, to the extent that if your site is not highly ranked by Google, you are like the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. It doesn’t matter that people seeking information are free to bypass Google and use other tools; they don’t. 

So, how does information equal power? The active power that information provides is typically the threat of exposure. Such information gives you power primarily in a secretive, opaque world where access to information is limited.

But generally, the free flow of information reduces the concentration of power. So, rather than suppressing or regulating the information that Google uncovers, we are better off making it more freely available.

A Google that is accountable to its users – searchers, advertisers, investors, and governments – is likely to be a better outfit that does more good in today’s relatively open market. In short, there is no regulatory system that I trust more than the current messy world of conflicting interests. Whatever short-term temptations it faces – to manipulate its search results, use private information, or throw its weight around – Google, it is clear, could lose a lot by succumbing to them in a world where its every move is watched.

Meanwhile, Google is not merely avoiding evil; it actively fights against it.

For example, Google fights censorship – by doing, not by shouting. Rather than stand on the sidelines and proclaim censorship evil, it is picking its way through the landmines in China – competing with a politically well-connected rival and politely letting its users know that they aren’t always getting the whole picture.

In short, Google is changing expectations about what people can know – even in the United States, where formal censorship is absent, but government obfuscation, opaque corporations, and the like are not. Moreover, in countries where Google is criticized for blocking access to information, it points out the information’s absence when something is blocked – letting people know that it exists but that they can’t have access to it.

On the other hand, every time someone in China googles something and gets an answer – a product’s good and bad points, the details about someone the government does not like – he must wonder, “Why can’t I get this kind of information about everything?” With Google, people start to expect answers about everything. A little transparency inevitably leads to more. Rather than demand an end to censorship now – an impossible dream – Google is working to make that happen by eroding government control over information.

Moreover, from a purely practical point of view, Google makes the world more efficient. Buyers and sellers can find one another, schoolchildren can find information needed for their homework, and sick people can find health information.

The real threat of evil, I think, lies in the temptations of “international governance” – say, a sinister multilateral government body called the World Information Center. Nice as it sounds, the reality is likely to be ridden with bureaucracy, susceptible to control by the worst of the world’s governments rather than its best ones, and incapable of innovation.

Take, for example, ICANN, the body that sets policy for the Domain Name System. I was its founding chairman, and I don’t think anyone considers it a success. Its saving grace is that it is widely considered illegitimate and therefore has little power.

By contrast, Google is effective at what it does, and therefore has the legitimacy of results. But it has little coercive power, because anyone is free to try an alternative. Its only option is to be better than the competition.

The fact that these issues are being debated is a good sign in itself – keeping Google and its watchers on guard. Fortunately, a wary press corps, powerful governments, and nervous competitors watch its every move, hoping the company will fight its many temptations. Abuse of power is evil, but power itself is not.

 

Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

www.project-syndicate.org

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