Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is Google Still Making Money without Doing Evil?

Yesterday I cited a German author who understood revolution in terms of its dark consequences. I have also argued in the past that a disregard of such dark consequences, be it through will or abject ignorance, is leading Google to lose its moral compass, assuming that such compass was defined by anything other than the naive conviction that "You can make money without doing evil." Thus, it is no surprise that today's Germany is the site of a growing awareness of such consequences contingent on current Google activities; and much of that awareness has now been documented by Julia Bonstein, Marcel Rosenbach and Hilmar Schmundt in their article on SPIEGEL ONLINE with title and subtitle "Does Google Know Too Much?: Data Mining You to Death."

In many ways this is a David-and-Goliath story, in which a few German organizations at different levels of the government are trying to play David against Google's Goliath. (Putting aside the question of evil, we have entertained more than ample evidence that "Philistine" would be a good description of Google's grasp of the subtleties of matters of governance.) The contrast between the opponents is best appreciated when the government organization involved is all the way down at the local level. So that his how Bonstein, Rosenbach, and Schmundt begin their story:

The little town of Molfsee, near Kiel in northern Germany, has three lakes, an idyllic open-air museum and a population just under 5,000. It’s not the likeliest place to declare war against a global power. Yet Molfsee has won the first round of a battle against a powerful digital age opponent.

The source of friction is a fleet of dark-colored Opel Astras. The cars caused a stir when they started cruising the streets of German cities over the last few months, sporting roof-mounted cameras that record 360-degree images from 11 lenses. Some of the vehicles bear the name of the company that sent them on this massive photographic mission: Google.

"Street View" is the name of the service offered by Google. The California-based Internet company is photographing city streets all over the world, linking the images to digital maps and making the whole package available on the Web. Anyone with an Internet connection will then be able to call up not just a "Google Map" but pictures of the area as well. The company also plans a feature to let users take a virtual stroll through a city.

The camera-wielding Astras haven't come to Molfsee yet, and local Google opponents want to keep it that way. Some of them have resorted to local law. According to a road traffic act passed in the town, Google would need a special permit to drive and photograph in Molfsee. Local politicians have refused to issue the permit.

What makes this story interesting, however, is how this local act of consciousness-raising has worked its way up to the Federal level, which now has a Commission for Data Protection. It's commissioner, Peter Schaar is taking a serious look at Molfsee and definitely sympathizes with their local law and the way in which it was applied. However, this story is about more than Street View. Ultimately, Google wants us to believe that it is in the business of indexing and/or organizing all the world's information so that it can be the world's best information provider. Professor Hendrik Speck, on the other hand, does not see it quite the same way:

Well, compared to what Google knows about us, many intelligence agencies look "like child protection services," says Hendrik Speck, professor at the applied sciences university in Kaiserslautern, a southwestern German city. Theoretically, he says, Google could record a query for pregnancy tests, then nine months later provide advertisements for diapers. Or -- six years later -- it could show offers for after-school homework help.

"The more data Google collects from its users, the higher the price it can ask for advertisements," says Speck.

This is the point at which the Google evangelists retaliate: So what if Google can charge more for advertisements! The information they provide is available to all of us. Shouldn't we all share in the benefit, whether or not Google us making more money in the process?

That rebuttal hits at one of the more aggravating mantras of Internet evangelists, the faith-based conviction that "information wants to be free." Well, guys, "information" is an abstract concept, a denizen of the objective world that knows as much about wanting things like freedom as it knows about wanting chopped liver. Desires reside in the subjective world. Back in the pre-Google age, information was provided by people; and they had desires! Probably the quality of the work they performed had at least some correlation with the degree to which those desires were being satisfied, whether it involved buying a new car, making new friends, or just feeling good about what you were doing. However, those providers also worked for organizations that imposed responsibilities as well as compensation packages. Those responsibilities were set up as part of the organization's governance structure out of recognition that providing information has consequences; and the organization, as a whole, accepted the responsibility of safeguarding against those consequences being dark ones.

That closes the loop of the logic: Google is ultimately one behemoth of an objective beast. Invoking the language of Milton Friedman, the whole purpose of the Google enterprise is to "feed the beast." There is no room for thinking about the consequences (in both one's own subjective world and in the social world enclosing it) of one's actions in this picture, particularly if one is a part of that enterprise. As a result of pushback at the local level, the Federal German government is starting to get very nervous about what Google can do (or has already done) in their backyard. Meanwhile, down at the grassroots level, we are beginning to encounter efforts to define "Google-free zones." This may not be enough to bring down the Google beast with a slingshot; but, if more governmental institutions around the world take more notice of what is happening in Germany, we may discover that the beast will only be fed in accordance with a regulatory framework that respects the civil rights of individuals!

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