Evil Google? Can the Search Engine Be Moral?

Google has one guiding principle: “don’t be evil.” It’s a simple motto, even though we could easily get wrapped into the semantics of it. But over the past months, Google has been exerting its power in ways that draw their adherence to this singular policy into question.

Don’t get me wrong, I use Google on a daily basis, and I think it’s a great search engine. That doesn’t mean the company itself is incapable of doing wrong. Google is as susceptible (if not moreso) to the same pitfalls as other big search engines, Yahoo! and MSN. Google has enjoyed using that ridiculous moral catchphrase to separate themselves, but people are only now becoming more and more aware and vocal about the problems with Google’s omnipresence.

The vastness of its indexing raises privacy concerns, and its power from being widely used raises concerns over its ability to represent data. Some are even afraid of Google tracking users. New concerns are found on a near-daily basis.

Most recently, Google has banned speaking to CNet News.com reporters after one voiced privacy concerns. To emphasize the reach of the Google index, Elinor Mills performed a 30 minute Google search and wrote this about Google’s CEO:

Schmidt, 50, was worth an estimated $1.5 billion last year. Earlier this year, he pulled in almost $90 million from sales of Google stock and made at least another $50 million selling shares in the past two months as the stock leaped to more than $300 a share.

He and his wife Wendy live in the affluent town of Atherton, Calif., where, at a $10,000-a-plate political fund-raiser five years ago, presidential candidate Al Gore and his wife Tipper danced as Elton John belted out “Bennie and the Jets.”

Schmidt has also roamed the desert at the Burning Man art festival in Nevada, and is an avid amateur pilot. (Hyperlinks within this text have been removed by SEO Chat. View the original CNet article here.)

That’s all it took to get press contact cut off. The information published is rather sketchy, and it is certainly not highly personal or embarrassing. The most sensitive thing is the first hyperlink (if you click Schmidt). It provides his home address and contact information…on his own homepage! He can remove his address whenever we wants, and of all people he should know better than to put it there if it wasn’t meant to be public.

A few months ago, CNet ran an earlier article where Schmidt responds to privacy concerns.

In the earlier article, it sounds like Eric Schmidt had tried to clean up Google’s records that revealed too much about him:

Schmidt discovered his own home phone number through Google, but said he was able to remove it by filling out Google’s standard form…“Google does not discover things that are not public,” said Schmidt…“Many people are disturbed to find their home phone number. But we found it because it was a public piece of information.” (source)

So, Schmidt is perfectly comfortable with the privacy issues. Not only that, he cleaned up the personal information he didn’t like and had it removed from the search engine. Google expects everyone to police their own internet ego. Apparently, it’s so easy that anyone can get their information removed if they want to. And he did.

I really hate to think Google would blacklist CNet simply for using their search product on an executive (who had already cleaned up his personal information) and reporting the results. This is something everyone can search for at will; all the information is from a “public piece of information.” Right, Mr. Schmitt? After all, the very premise of their company is:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. (source)

There is no clause saying, “except when you use it on our company and employees.” So Google’s move seems to send one fairly clear message to everyone: we will not let you criticize our services.

This doesn’t mean Google is making deals with the devil or throwing away users’ concerns entirely, but it shows that the search engine is not managed by a crowd of do-gooders purely bent on universal information sharing and world peace. Schmidt may be concerned with his own privacy represented on the search engine, but has made no indication that he is thinking about anyone else’s. The company would rather send an intimidating message to news sources than address privacy concerns in a professional manner.

And is contradicting the stated purpose of your business and blocking constructive feedback evil? Well, it’s certainly not good. And this isn’t the only time Google has responded in a questionable way.

Google’s guiding “do no evil” principle is a bit questionable for a couple reasons.

The first and most significant troublesome point of Google is that it has, for the last several months, been a publicly traded company. They are now responsible to stockholders as well as basic users. All the other major search engines are publicly traded as well, which raises similar concerns with them. Yet Google is the one who promised us they wouldn’t be evil, and it’s terribly difficult to believe any public company can remain pure hearted forever. The premise of the public company is that shareholders own them, the advertisers pay them, and the users are a technicality. Advertisers may mean more than users’ privacy or other concerns.

The second point is that one of Google’s cofounders, Sergey Brin, carries the responsibility of watching the company’s ethics. Meanwhile the CEO, Eric Schmidt, watches the company’s finances and the other cofounder, Larry Page, works with the development team. So “evil,” as Google would have it, is really defined by one man. Whatever Brin deems as immoral is immoral, but he may have a very different view of ethics than you or me.

This means that the morals of one person can dictate the information that a world full of web browsers can easily access. It allows pornography advertisements to run rampant on the search engine and completely block any alcohol or tobacco ads. Ever try searching for “rum” then searching for “porn” and wonder why the second is the only one with sponsored links? It’s because finding naked people online is morally better than finding the best brand of rum to make a drink. Or maybe it’s because pornography is more profitable than other objectionable content. This is only an indicator of deeper concerns rooted in how Google represents information on the web.

For an example, let’s look at a news item some readers may remember that illustrates a small compromise by the search company. In 2002, the Church of Scientology convinced Google to remove links to some specific anti-Scientology sites, such as Xenu.net. The official reason: those sites provided copyrighted scientology material.

So what is wrong with this picture? Besides the fact Google appears responsible for providing copyrighted material (under copyright law from 1998, not even the DCMA), it also pegs Google as internet guardian. With so many users, Google definitely helps determine what people are able to access. If a site is excluded from Google on some “guardian principle,” it better be linked from a page that is indexed or else it may as well not exist.

Removing offensive or copyrighted material almost defeats their ability to provide universal access to information. Again, compromising their “mission” is not good, even though I certainly see why they reacted how they did. This may largely be a problem with legality and the trouble with a majority of people using one search engine, but a lot of people were disappointed that Google did nothing to fight the issue. The company made no notable attempt to retain the integrity of their indexes.

Let’s briefly look at a few more news stories. A couple years ago, Google was recognized as so much of an international player that they engaged China. After China blocked their search engine because it could be used to spread radical material, Google again played internet guardian. Google didn’t speak specifically of what they did, but China eventually allowed users to search Google again. The Chinese surfers soon discovered their new Google China would not let them view questionable political material.

Google claims it took that route because it is more useful now than it would have been as a blocked site. The company has done the same for France and Germany regarding Nazi materials. Sure, it does make the search engine more useful than if it were to be blocked. But is “usefulness” the same as “good?” Was it right to once again limit universal access to information? Well, that can remain questionable, but remaining “useful” sounds more like a business practice than a philosophy.

Far more recently, Google has been under fire from Microsoft. Google hired a former Microsoft executive, Kai-Fu Lee, to help develop their Chinese search engine. His job in Redmond was researching speech interfaces and search technology. You can see why Google wanted him. Due to non-competition agreements that Lee signed, Microsoft is suing both Google and Lee. Hiring a specialist from under the competition’s noses may sound like a normal business practice for most, but it errs on the dark side.

Google was also sued a few days ago for overcharging advertisers. Those who place ads can set daily limits of what they will pay, and the class action suit claims that Google exceeded those maximums for many people. If it’s actually true, the search company should look into the ethics of theft.

Already, you may be seeing how the interests of a publicly traded company, one man’s morals, and the mission of making all information “universally accessible and useful” come into conflict.

Sure, there’s no evidence that Google’s intentions are wrong or that Schmitt has made a blood pact with Satan. The company is not really evil. There is, however, plenty of reason to be concerned with any search companies that try to be seen as innocent. The trust users can put into one brand can be unreasonable. I have to congradulate Google on earning the faithfulness of so many people, but we should remain objective here.

These issues are not limited to Google, only the faith that Google can do no wrong. All search engines are becoming privacy concerns. Just last week, Yahoo! claimed to have upgraded their indexes to hold 20 billion documents, stomping Google’s record. Since Yahoo! has a much more expansive reach of content now, it’s obvious they probably need to be careful of these same issues.

What sort of privacy protection can any of these companies implement to ensure that misuse of the information can be kept to a minimum? Should users be the ones responsible for protecting themselves and getting content pulled (even those who don’t use the internet)? And Google’s lashing against CNet shows what the business isn’t afraid to resort to in order to keep the criticism quiet. It would be good if Google instead said, “Okay, we’re working on it.”

Google+ Comments

Google+ Comments