Response 5: Google Owns You
Whenever I need information on a topic, my mother instructs me not to “google it,” but to “ask Google” (an amusing miscegenation of Google and AskJeeves). This always makes me laugh, as it implies a sort of all-knowing information overlord hiding behind that friendly, primary-colored logo. When I stop to think about it, though, my mother might be onto something.
Should we be afraid of Google? In short: hell yes.
Google is responsible for 70% of search engine queries. They control what information we see in the results of those searches, via their secret algorithm(s). The best we can do is guess at what’s involved in the rankings, which still doesn’t leave us in any more control of the information (links) our search turns up. As Battelle says in The Search, “no one goes to the fiftieth page of results” (165). A minor tweaking of Google’s algorithms can throw businesses into despair, not to mention cause serious problems for individuals.
And Google is far from just a search engine. Gmail users are increasingly common both in the US and worldwide. Google Books is revolutionizing the way we consume books and the accessibility of out-of-print materials, but not without giving Google itself some pretty hefty benefits (and serious power). And, as I discovered only this week, for every user (and to use Gmail, for example, or Google Reader, you have to create a user profile), Google maintains a total web usage history. Google knows that on September 17th, 2009, I searched for “kinds of slugs,” then visited a website called Different Kinds of Slugs. I don’t remember why I did this—I’m fairly sure it was innocuous—but I’m vaguely uncomfortable with Google maintaining a record of it. What if poison slugs are involved in some crazy terrorist attack, and the government demands to know who’s researched them lately? It sounds stupid (well, that particular premise is stupid), but the overriding principle isn’t. The amount that Google knows about me—who I email, what I say, where I live, what websites I visit, what books I’ve looked through, projects I’m working on in GoogleDocs, where I might be going based on GoogleMaps searches, the list goes on and on—is deeply unsettling. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Google’s working on breaking into the medical record business.
In sum: Google controls access to unimaginable amounts of data, about both the world and individuals in it. They are also a for-profit company with a history of doing what they want and avoiding regulation. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.