Google Slowly Taking Over The World
Most of you have likely seen the EPIC 2014 video, created by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson in November 2004, by now. For the rest of you:
As the Wikipedia entry explains, the eight minute movie “explores the effects that the convergence of popular News aggregators like Google News and Newsbot with other Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, social networking and user participation may have on journalism and society at large in a hypothesized future. The film popularized the term Googlezon and touches on major privacy and copyright issues raised in this scenario.” Some of it is, of course, more than a little far-fetched. The premise, though, is all too real. (There’s also a less-widely-circulated January 2005 update called EPIC 2015.)
I was reminded of that this morning by news that Google has filed a patent to analyze the psychological profiles of online gamers. David Adam and Bobbie Johnson report for The Guardian that, “The company thinks it can glean information about an individual’s preferences and personality type by tracking their online behaviour, which could then be sold to advertisers. Details such as whether a person is more likely to be aggressive, hostile or dishonest could be obtained and stored for future use, it says.”
The plans are detailed in a patent filed by Google in Europe and the US last month. It says people playing online role playing games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft would be particularly good to target, because they interact with other players and make decisions that probably reflect their behaviour in real life. The patent says: “User dialogue (eg from role playing games, simulation games, etc) may be used to characterise the user (eg literate, profane, blunt or polite, quiet etc). Also, user play may be used to characterise the user (eg cautious, risk-taker, aggressive, non-confrontational, stealthy, honest, cooperative, uncooperative, etc).”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Google already uses keywords and other information to target ads on various Web pages and even email messages for users of its popular Gmail service. Their desire to improve their techniques and serve more tailored ads is understandable and unobjectionable. So long as the data is merely kept at the level of “the user onscreen now,” it seems harmless.
The problem is that there’s nothing to prevent the massive amounts of data that Google is amassing from being aggregated and put to other uses. If Google has your name, address, Social Security number, bank account number, credit card numbers, and other critical information — and it likely does if you’re doing business with them as an ad seller, ad buyer, WiFi client, or with any business that Google may happen to buy in the future — plus all of your email, your calendar, your online chats, your phone conversations, every address you’ve used Google maps to find direction to, every search you’ve entered, every spreadsheet and word processing document you’ve worked on, and so on and so on, the potential for abuse is massive.
There’s an article on Slashdot this morning (found through my Google toolbar, naturally) entitled “Who Isn’t Afraid of Google?”
“Google, despite ‘doing no evil’, has managed to make itself a number of enemies recently. That’s the subject of an article from the San Francisco Chronicle, which looks into the Davids looking to slay Goliath. In this strange, strange tale the Davids are the size of companies like Microsoft and Yahoo, rumoured to be discussing an alliance to take on the search leader. The list of detractors is longer than other search providers, though; privacy experts, advertisers, startups, and Hollywood executives are all frustrated with the company for one reason or another. ‘Despite Google’s power, few say the company strikes as much fear in them as Microsoft did during the 1990s, when its near-monopoly on computer operating systems earned it the nickname “evil empire.” Google’s spotty track record with new products — few outside of search have much of a following — and intense competition with other Internet companies keeps it a step below. “With Google, there is still choice,” said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst for Guernsey Research, “so I’m not sure if the ‘evil empire’ epithet can be equally applied.” But he cautioned that the warning sign will come when Google becomes so dominant that customers cannot do without it. How well will Google deal with its customers’ problems then?'”
Those of us who live and do business mostly online are likely already there. Google is the 900 pound gorilla of search and they have the power to tip the scales of between success and failure for referral-based Internet businesses. Being “Condemned To Google Hell” can be catastrophic.
Certainly, blogs like this one can benefit enormously from traffic from Google and be harmed by changes in their algorithms. We were on GoogleNews for a few months and got an enormous traffic spike. They changed the way they valued blogs, taking away much of that traffic (after several articles made the front page in the first couple months, we became part of the “see more”) and ultimately we were dropped altogether. Having a higher PageRank drives more traffic yet its formulation is constantly changing and the subject of guesswork.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about the power of Google (and other companies) to play favorites on an ideological basis, too. There have been a handful of high profile cases involving conservatives being dumped from various Google listings or from YouTube, which Google now owns.
Now, frankly, I think Larry Page and Sergey Brin are happy to simply serve you better ads and continue raking in a few billion dollars every year. My guess is that they’re more concerned with the bottom line than with politics and that the harm done at the individual level is incidental to purely technical business decisions. Still, the potential for abuse is staggering.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen so many times in recent years, massive compilations of data are subject to theft and otherwise being compromised. The number of government agencies and large corporations who have lost control of sensitive information is frightening. At this point, Google likely knows more about us than all Federal agencies combined.