Google and the Trust Issue

Can we trust Google long-term with our data?

Activist groups are trying to thwart Google’s purchase of Doubleclick on account of the power it will give Google over a vast amount of user information:

“Google’s proposed acquisition of DoubleClick will give one company access to more information about the Internet activities of consumers than any other company in the world,” said the complaint lodged with the Federal Trade Commission. “Moreover, Google will operate with virtually no legal obligation to ensure the privacy, security, and accuracy of the personal data that it collects.”

This is a fear that many people hold. What responsibility does Google have?

Tim O’Reilly provides the counter-argument, suggesting that the activists are ignoring much bigger threats:

“While there is some ground for concern, people seem to be ignoring far greater risks to our privacy that are in the hands of people far less scrupulous than Google. Our credit card company knows everything we buy — and sells that information to marketers; our phone company knows everyone we call — and sells that information to marketers; our supermarket knows what we buy and how often — and sells that information to marketers.”

But I think that Tim is still looking at small potatoes. This isn’t just about selling your data to some dirty 3rd party, which happens all the time. This is about manipulation of behavior over the long term…could Google possibly do something like that? Is there such thing as an information monopolist? Is it possible for a company to know so much about so many things that it can sway the way the world works?

O’Reilly goes on to suggest that Google is a benevolent dictator:

“Meanwhile, here’s Google, which is using the information it collects to build better services that we eagerly consume because they are useful to us, and yet we’re complaining about the risks of how much data they collect! At least Google’s harnessing that data for our benefit, while most of the other big data collectors are simply using it for their own.”

This is the crux of a major, major issue that isn’t going to go away soon, probably ever. As Google and other ginormous data-center companies figure out how to provide better and better services, they’ll also create better aggregation tools and information harvesters. I checked out my Search History on Google the other day and was astounded at how many searches I do. I don’t remember 90% of them…and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with someone or something that does.

Up until now Google has been very protective of its users. Matt Cutts argues well for them. But, as time goes on and Google matures into a corporation that thinks it deserves takes its great success for granted (as at least some people within the organization will), is there a point when it knows too much for our own good?

Published: April 26th, 2007