Sunday, April 16, 2006

Google's Dissonant Views on Information

I am wrapping up the lingering details of rebuilding my computer at work. I'm configuring some of the features of Google Desktop. Just now, I received the following notice:
Please read this carefully. It's not the usual yada yada.

When you use Advanced Features, you may be sending non-personal usage information and information about websites you visit to Google.

For example, Google Desktop sends Google information about the news pages you visit in order to personalize the news you see in Sidebar. We use other non-personal usage data, including crash reports, to help improve Desktop's performance. Please note that none of this data actually tells us who you are; we use it merely to improve Desktop's ability to give you the information that's most relevant to you.

To learn more about our privacy protections, read our Privacy Policy.
Now this is an interesting thing to say when you compare and contrast this to two other actions taken by Google:

1. Resisted the US Attorney General's request to provide anonymous search terms in order to better protect children from child pornographers and (the real reason) to execute a warrantless search for terrorist activities. Google rightly told the Feds to get bent because a). there's no probable cause for the search and b). it doesn't take a whole lot of thought or creativity to come up with search terms that might typically be used by child porn seekers.

2. Google acquiesced to the Chinese government to filter search results for searches originating from Chinese IPs.

In the notice I received this morning, it is okay for me to feel safe that Google doesn't track anything related to me personally (... yet I need to log in to my Google account... hmmm) but it's an invasion of privacy when the Feds want the same kind of information. So, if the data collected by Google is so anonymous why not give it up?

I recognize that I've already answered my own question when I asserted that the Feds' request for data was an unreasonable search with no probable cause but it does seem a bit discordant for Google to tell me their data collection is harmless.

The filtering of Chinese use of Google is disturbing to me. Here is an explanation of the decision from Google's official blog. If you want to skip all the blah blah blah, here's the short version:
We decided to cater to the Chinese government's desire to curtail the free exchange of information by limiting certain kinds of search results so that we can expand our market presence in China. We value revenue over freedom.
Google users in China today struggle with a service that, to be blunt, isn't very good. appears to be down around 10% of the time. Even when users can reach it, the website is slow, and sometimes produces results that when clicked on, stall out the user's browser. Our Google News service is never available; Google Images is accessible only half the time. At Google we work hard to create a great experience for our users, and the level of service we've been able to provide in China is not something we're proud of.

This problem could only be resolved by creating a local presence, and this week we did so, by launching, our website for the People's Republic of China. In order to do so, we have agreed to remove certain sensitive information from our search results. We know that many people are upset about this decision, and frankly, we understand their point of view. This wasn't an easy choice, but in the end, we believe the course of action we've chosen will prove to be the right one.

Launching a Google domain that restricts information in any way isn't a step we took lightly. For several years, we've debated whether entering the Chinese market at this point in history could be consistent with our mission and values. Our executives have spent a lot of time in recent months talking with many people, ranging from those who applaud the Chinese government for its embrace of a market economy and its lifting of 400 million people out of poverty to those who disagree with many of the Chinese government's policies, but who wish the best for China and its people. We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?
So, Google justifies their decision by saying that they want to deliver a Quality of Service that makes the Google engine available on a reliable and rapid basis. They are saying that performance and market penetration were the primary values they used when making a decision to restrict Chinese citizen access to information that would enhance the penetration of the democratic and capitalistic impulses within Communist China.

I would argue that a more effective way of arousing desire for freedom than warring against phantom terroristic threats is to penetrate closed societies with information and ideas that encourage thinking on and desire for freedom. Certainly, there is a place for war. However, as I have commented before, the Bush Administration's justification for war today is to propagate freedom in the Middle East. Not only is this a significant departure from the initial basis of justification (secure WMD's before they are used against us) but it is also a fatuous argument: how does killing a country's people encourage democracy?

So, here is Google as a company. I believe that Google is one of the most important -- if not the most important -- assets on the internet and they are choosing revenue and, ostensibly, Quality of Service to justify catering to Beijing's desire to suppress freedom and innovative thought. Google stock is trading at upwards of $380/share. They are a cash cow company and more praise to them for that! I love successful innovative, capitalistic companies.

Yet with affluence comes a degree of responsibility to the disenfranchised. Could not Google subsidize the penetration of free information into China with revenue from open societies? Could not Google, in the case of countries whose governments oppress their people, use their tremendous assets to actively subvert oppressors like Beijing by finding creative ways to give QoS and fully-disclosed search results to the oppressed people of China?

Google's justification in the blog entry I cited above sounds more like a marketing plan than it does a mission for an innovative company whose sole purpose of existence is to get people connected with powerful and useful information. It is a noble-sounding excuse that seeks to get us to forgive their unwillingness to subvert oppression. Instead, it is a hollow statement of marketing corpo-speak.

When taken together, Google's positions on information it pulls from my computer, information it withholds from the Feds and information it intentionally restricts from Chinese citizens seems profoundly discordant to me. It seems to me that Google has given up an opportunity to be an innovator for the democratic process in exchange for Chinese Yuans that nicely convert to American dollars.