E-to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism at Google

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Google Inc.’s “Don’t Be Evil” slo­gan is se­duc­tive but mis­lead­ing. It is the low­est busi­ness ethics stan­dard ever de­vised, ex­cus­ing ev­ery­thing Google does short of evil. Google isn’t evil — but nei­ther is it eth­i­cal.

While per­cep­tions of the world’s erst­while No. 1 brand re­main ex­cep­tion­ally strong, Google’s eth­i­cal blind spots re­gard­ing pri­vacy and prop­erty rights are be­gin­ning to erode the pub­lic’s trust and even­tu­ally could threaten the com­pany’s mar­ket dom­i­na­tion. Any­one who fol­lows Google closely knows that the com­pany is a se­rial scan­dal ma­chine. One of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies, with its vain­glo­ri­ous mis­sion to “or­ga­nize the world’s in­for­ma­tion,” has proved it­self to be un­eth­i­cal, shock­ingly po­lit­i­cal and un­trust­wor­thy.

Google’s pri­vacy record is shame­ful. In 2004, Google sparked a pri­vacy out­cry by scan­ning Gmail users’ pri­vate emails for ad­ver­tis­ing key­words. The next year, Google Earth put sites, in­clud­ing the White House’s roof and a Tri­dent sub­ma­rine base, on pub­lic dis­play; a leader of the al-Aqsa Mar­tyrs’ Brigade ter­ror­ist group said he was thrilled. In 2006, Google re­fused to com­ply with a Cal­i­for­nia pri­vacy law. Two years later, Street View ex­posed peo­ple’s homes and li­cense plates to any­one who cared to look; a mem­ber of the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment de­scribed the ser­vice as “in­vad­ing our pri­vacy on an in­dus­trial scale.” In 2009, Google be­gan track­ing the books peo­ple searched (via Google Books) and vis­i­tors to White­House.gov. Last year, Google Buzz ex­posed users’ pri­vate email lists to the pub­lic while Google’s Street View cars were caught eaves­drop­ping on mil­lions of users’ wire­less net­works. No won­der Pri­vacy In­ter­na­tional cited Google for its “en­trenched hos­til­ity to pri­vacy.” But it’s easy to un­der­stand why Google has no re­spect for pri­vacy. Just con­sider Google Chair­man Eric Sch­midt’s own words: “If you have some­thing you don’t want any­one to know, maybe you shouldn’t be do­ing it.”

Google’s record for re­spect­ing oth­ers’ prop­erty is no bet­ter. In 2004, Google paid $250 mil­lion in stock to set­tle a law­suit al­leg­ing the firm had vi­o­lated GoTo.com’s patent for the key­word auc­tion process on which Google’s busi­ness model is based. A year later, the Au­thors Guild sued Google for copy­ing mil­lions of books with­out per­mis­sion; Google con­tin­ues to copy books il­le­gally de­spite the fact that a fed­eral court re­jected the pro­posed Google Books set­tle­ment as un­law­ful. In 2007, Vi­a­com sued Google for $1 bil­lion for in­fring­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of copy­rights on videos; court doc­u­ments re­vealed Google knew YouTube de­rived its traf­fic from il­le­gal video up­loads but bought the com­pany any­way. In 2010, Or­a­cle charged that Google “know­ingly, di­rectly and re­peat­edly in­fringed Or­a­cle’s Java-re­lated in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty” in its An­droid mo­bile-phone plat­form. Google also has been ac­cused of fa­cil­i­tat­ing trade­mark in­fringe­ment and aid­ing on­line piracy.

When Mr. Sch­midt was asked if peo­ple should trust Google as much as they do, he de­flected the ques­tion with a ques­tion of his own: “That de­pends on what you think of our com­pany and our val­ues. Do you think we have good val­ues?” Per­haps out of po­lite­ness, no one wants to tell him the truth: Google’s ac­tions and busi­ness prac­tices over time make it clear that Google’s val­ues are not what most peo­ple would con­sider good val­ues.

Google re­peat­edly says one thing but does an­other.

The com­pany says serv­ing users is its top pri­or­ity, but Google does not of­fer users cus­tomer ser­vice. Google ex­horts oth­ers to be trans­par­ent, but it runs one of the world’s most opaque op­er­a­tions. Google urges ev­ery­one else to adopt open sys­tems, but Google’s search en­gine and AdWords auc­tion sys­tem are closed. Google tram­ples the most fun­da­men­tal eth­i­cal stan­dard, the golden rule, by rou­tinely treat­ing oth­ers the way Google does not want to be treated.

Ear­lier this year, Google put a de­fi­ant pub­lic ex­cla­ma­tion point on its con­tempt for pri­vate in­for­ma­tion and prop­erty by an­nounc­ing it had de­cided to make all of the se­cret, con­fi­den­tial and pri­vate in­for­ma­tion leaked by Wik­iLeaks uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble and use­ful to the world’s bad ac­tors via Google search.

It all comes back to Google’s uber-am­bi­tious mis­sion “to or­ga­nize the world’s in­for­ma­tion.”

That may sound like a good thing, but do we re­ally want one un­eth­i­cal, un­ac­count­able en­tity or­ga­niz­ing all of the world’s in­for­ma­tion? Google’s un­prece­dented cen­tral­iza­tion of power over the world’s in­for­ma­tion is cor­rupt­ing the In­ter­net. It is lead­ing us to a fu­ture in which there is lit­tle competition, pri­vacy and in­cen­tive for creativ­ity and in­no­va­tion. Al­low­ing one com­pany to or­ga­nize the world’s in­for­ma­tion is a ter­ri­ble idea that can only lead to a soft to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

In­for­ma­tion is power. Google is rapidly evolv­ing from an in­for­ma­tion ser­vant to mas­ter, from work­ing for users to mak­ing users work for the In­ter­net be­he­moth. Make no mis­take, if Google suc­ceeds at tak­ing away peo­ple’s on­line pri­vacy and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights through track­ing and dig­i­tal re­dis­tri­bu­tion, we be­come Google’s serfs. This dig­i­tal road to serf­dom is not paved with good in­ten­tions.

Scott Cle­land is au­thor of the new book “Search & De­stroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” (Te­le­scope Books, 2011).

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