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Who's Afraid of Google?

Who's Afraid of Google?

The Economist asks the question in its 1 Sep 07 issue. Damien Mulley and TJ McIntyre raise it as well on RTE Radio One with Marian Finucane. I recorded part of their banter [4.9 96 kbps MP3 file] when it fell onto my SonyEricsson K800i speakerphone.

From the Economist Leaders section:

Rarely if ever has a company risen so fast in so many ways as Google, the world's most popular search engine. This is true by just about any measure: the growth in its market value and revenues; the number of people clicking in search of news, the nearest pizza parlour or a satellite image of their neighbour's garden; the volume of its advertisers; or the number of its lawyers and lobbyists.

Such an ascent is enough to evoke concerns--both paranoid and justified. (See Digital Rights Ireland for more details.) The list of constituencies that hate or fear Google grows by the week. Television networks, book publishers and newspaper owners feel that Google has grown by using their content without paying for it. Telecoms firms such as America's AT&T and Verizon are miffed that Google prospers, in their eyes, by free-riding on the bandwidth that they provide; and it is about to bid against them in a forthcoming auction for radio spectrum. Many small firms hate Google because they relied on exploiting its search formulas to win prime positions in its rankings, but dropped to the internet's equivalent of Hades after Google tweaked these algorithms.

And now come the politicians. Libertarians dislike Google's deal with China's censors. Conservatives moan about its uncensored videos. But the big new fear is to do with the privacy of its users. Google's business model assumes that people will entrust it with ever more information about their lives, to be stored in the company's "cloud" of remote computers. These data begin with the logs of a user's searches (in effect, a record of his interests) and his responses to advertisements. Often they extend to the user's e-mail, calendar, contacts, documents, spreadsheets, photos and videos. They could soon include even the user's medical records and precise location (determined from his mobile phone).

More JP Morgan Than Bill Gates

Google is often compared to Microsoft (another enemy, incidentally); but its evolution is actually closer to that of the banking industry. Just as financial institutions gew to become repositories of people's money, and thus guardians of private information about their finances, Google is now turning into a custodian of a far wider and more intimate range of information about individuals. Yes, this applies also to rivals such as Yahoo! and Microsoft. But Google, through the sheer speed with which it accumulates the treasure of information, will be the one to test the limits of what society can tolerate.

It does not help that Google is often seen as arrogant. Granted, this complaint oftem comes from sour-grapes rivals. But many others are put off by Google's cocksure assertion of its own holiness, as if it merited unquestioning trust. This after all is the firm that chose "Don't be evil" as its corporate motto and that explicitly intones that its goal is "not to make money", as its boss Eric Schmidt puts it, but "to change the world". Its ownership structure is set up to protect that vision.

Ironically, there is something rather cloudlike about the multiple complaints surrounding Google. The issues are best parted into two cumuli: a set of "public" argu,ments about how to regulate Google; and a set of "private" ones for Google's managers, to do with the strategy the firm needs to get through the coming storm. On both counts, Google--contrary to its own propaganda--is much better judged as being just like any other "evil" money-grabbing company.

The Economist -- "Who's Afraid of Google?" in the 1 Sep 07 edition as a cover story.