Mon, Dec 22, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Google meets its motto — for now

By Esther Dyson

“Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto.” To Google’s credit, if you Google that sentence, you can find reference to a debate on that claim that I took part in recently.

As it happens, I have a complex relationship with Google. I have fed at its trough many times — as a personal guest; as an advisory board member of Stop Badware, a non-governmental organization it sponsors; and as a speaker at its events. I also sit on the board of 23andMe, cofounded by the wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin.

But I also sit on the boards of Yandex in Russia, one of a small number of companies around the world who beat Google in their local markets, and of WPP, a worldwide advertising/marketing company famous for its rivalry with Google. Finally, I’m suspicious of concentrations of power of any kind.

So I welcomed the chance to clarify my thinking. I took the con side of the debate: Google does not violate its motto. However, I do think there is a danger that someday it could.

The danger lies in the concentration of information – arguably a concentration of power — that Google represents. Google doesn’t merely point users to existing information on the Web; it also collects information that it doesn’t share about its users’ behavior. If you can use patterns in Google searches to track flu outbreaks and predict a movie’s commercial prospects, can you also use it to forecast market movements or even revolutions?

Even if Google uses personal information only for their benefit (whatever that means), it represents an attractive target for governments. In fact, Google generally fights government requests for personal information. (It was Yahoo, not Google, that gave personal data to China’s government, which then jailed a journalist.)

Google has become a de facto gatekeeper of information, to the extent that if your site is not highly ranked by Google, you are like the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. It doesn’t matter that people seeking information are free to bypass Google and use other tools; they don’t.

So how does information equal power? The active power that information provides is typically the threat of exposure. Such information gives you power primarily in a secretive, opaque world where access to information is limited.

But generally, the free flow of information reduces the concentration of power. So, rather than suppressing or regulating the information that Google uncovers, we are better off making it more freely available.

A Google that is accountable to its users — searchers, advertisers, investor, and governments — is likely to be a better outfit that does more good in today’s relatively open market. In short, there is no regulatory system that I trust more than the current messy world of conflicting interests. Whatever short-term temptations it faces — to manipulate its search results, use private information, or throw its weight around — Google, it is clear, could lose a lot by succumbing to them in a world where its every move is watched.

Meanwhile, Google is not merely avoiding evil; it actively fights against it. For example, Google fights censorship — by doing, not by shouting. Rather than stand on the sidelines and proclaim censorship evil, it is picking its way through the landmines in China — competing with a politically well-connected rival and politely letting its users know that they aren’t always getting the whole picture.

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