people compare google to perfection

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by: Lynette Webb

The photo comes thanks to Kazze

The quote comes from googler Matt Cutt’s blog I’ve been meaning to put it up for a while, as something about it just rang true. Across all their services, Google are I believe held to a higher standard by your average web searcher because of their track record and the trust that's built up.

I think this expectation is one of the reasons why every time there’s even a glimmer of suspicion that google might do something stupid/evil/scary, there’s such an uproar. (Of course, another reason is that they’re so widely used, what google does matters directly to more people).

We’re in the midst of another of these uproars, to the extent that I had someone seriously ask me last week if this was the beginning of the end for Google. They thought it was; I disagreed. There seems to have been a flurry of others online talking about this, so I thought I’d share my thoughts as a perhaps contrary voice.

What sparked my friend’s question was an article in the FT, which in light of Google’s recent investment in a genetics company, and Eric Schmidt’s recent comment: “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’, was basically talking about Google as being big brother, privacy invader, etc.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this plays out. Personally, I think with some careful calming down by Google spokespeople, plus an element of time passing, it’ll blow over like the other Google fear panics have (Danny Sullivan has a great roundup of them here:

It would be different – VERY different – if Google had actually erred and done something severely wrong. Like selling out a chinese blogger (Y! bow your head in shame: But so far, at least by my reckoning, they haven’t… so the furore seems to be over the fact that there’s the very slim* possibility they might in future. Because Google have such a strong reputation and trust among your average consumer, I think this will be enough to let them weather the storm over what “might be” in future.

Perhaps I’m overly pragmatic, but as a consumer I’m willing to accept the very slim* risk that Google turn evil and betray my trust in a way that harms me in future, in exchange for the real benefits their services provide me now.

Indeed, the FT article recognises that I’m not alone in feeling like this:
“Google Search, Gmail and myriad other services are today intrusive data mining enterprises – and extremely popular with customers…. When Google scans them to find what job listing we might like to see or what spa we need to visit, we tend to be pretty happy. Where standards slip and private information leaks to unwanted purposes, or is sold to low-ball retailers, we are all going to get crazy. We will take Google's equity with us”.

Notice how it uses the future tense in talking about the bad things… this is because they haven’t happened!! If a backlash driven by data protection & privacy happens, IMHO it’ll be when there’s cause to believe that bad things are likely to happen; or clear signs that Google have lost their soul. At the moment, I don’t think we’re at that point… and thus, while I’m watching Google closely, I see no reason to get up in arms.

Remember, Google aren’t not the only people with access to huge amounts of personal data … your credit card company knows EVERY PURCHASE you’ve made, ANYWHERE you’ve used the card… your mobile phone company tracks EVERY PLACE you go and EVERY CALL you make or receive… And if you live in London as I do, you’re not only tracked but VIDEO’ED. (Recent estimates were that there was 1 cctv camera for every 14 people in the UK; more than 20% of all cctv cameras worldwide were in the UK… and you can bet that the bulk are in London.… ). At least with Google you have the option to avoid it – to not sign in to use personalised services; or to give false info when you register…. try doing that with your bank. 🙂

Such tracking has IMHO become just something you have to live with as part of modern urban life. Of course, it doesn’t mean you should be totally complacent about it – if nothing else, if you’re in the UK I urge you to consider donating to ORG (I don’t necessarily agree with all their positions, but I pay them money every month ‘cos I think it’s important there’s SOMEONE in a position to raise awkward issues and provide an educated voice).

I do wonder however, whether acceptance of such tracking as being “normal” is another sign of the digital divide. Perhaps to kids when they hear “big brother” they don’t see it in purely Orwellian terms but also as a friendly face like a real-life brother lending a helping hand, offering a service??? I don’t know… (do they even read 1984 in schools these days?)

Personally though, as a consumer, I trust Google more than I trust my credit card or mobile provider; and certainly more than I trust politicians or social services or any other government body. So the notion of Google being able to give me relevant suggestions about “what I should do tomorrow” or “what job should I take” doesn’t scare me as much as it seems to have terrified some.

It’s not like I’ll be forced to act on Google’s recommendations… the same way I’m not forced to believe my horoscope. I’ve done tests like Myers-Briggs and Gallup’s StrengthsFinder and found them incredibly useful in terms of helping me work out what things are important to me in a job; if Google can add another dimension to that, in a private way, brilliant. I love how Amazon recommends new books to me based on my past book-buying, it’s incredibly helpful and means I find great books I’d otherwise never have stumbled across… if Google can help me discover local events, holiday ideas, etc that are a similarly close match for what I like with no effort on my part, just like Amazon, then I say bring it on.

So long as I can choose to ignore Google’s suggestions… So long as I have the option to opt out of the tracking, ie: to revert back to searching anonymously at any point… So long as Google take steps to minimise risk of something going wrong (like deleting/sanitising the data they hold on me after a period so it’s not personally identifiable)… then, at least for now, I give Google the benefit of the doubt.

Digital privacy is an important issue though, one that’s worth coming to your own conclusions about. If you want to read more on the topic with relation to google, is interesting.

(*Sidenote: Personally I judge the possibility of google turning evil to be very slim because I think google folk are smart enough to recognise that if at any moment they do, whether on purpose or by accident, they’ll utterly destroy the reputation of google – which would undermine their entire business. And yes, I know Google are under fire for censoring search results in China… I sincerely wish they didn’t; but am also pragmatic and believe that offering access to google albeit in clearly-marked censored form is better than providing no access at all and at least gives them a step to build from… and anyway by my moral compass it’s a million miles less bad than what Y! have done).

PS: For the avoidance of doubt: as always, opinions expressed on this blog are my own and are not necessarily shared by the company I work for. 

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