in Google we trust…

May 29, 2009

Let me start by setting the record straight: I love Google. I like the meritocratic culture of its hiring, the promotion of creativity and side projects among its employees, and, most of all, its trend-settings, intuitive, and just plain useful suite of products. I appreciate what it’s trying to do with cloud computing and cutting the tether to the operating system (i.e. NOT what Microsoft is doing). I rely on my Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, to name only a few.

And yet…my distrust of large concentrations of power, especially over the flow of information has recently made me think twice about Google. Ultimately, they’re a company, just like any other, at the end of the day responsible to their shareholders now that they’ve gone public. As I see it, two main dangers exist in our placing so much trust in them:

1) Google decides to censor search results a la China. This means that certain sites would be inaccessible through Google. “Crazy,” you say, “Google would never do that. It would ruin their ‘don’t be evil’ equity.” I’d like to think so too, but really?….What if there were a terrorist attack whose organization could be traced to some websites. What if the U.S. government asks/forces Google to resist accessibility. Could/would Google really say no?

I suppose if Google does acquiesce to external censorship pressure, other search engines might eventually take its place as its reputation drops (or not, depending on the zeitgeist at the time). But a much more troubling scenario (and much more likely), is the elimination of people’s individual Google Accounts.

2) If Google decides you’re a persona non grata, as they have for numerous people, what do you do then? All your email, especially bad if it includes business email, is now inaccessible. Not only can you no longer communicate with anyone (sure you could open a different email account, but do you really remember all of the necessary email addresses?), but you can’t access any of your old emails, and we all know how important the Gmail’s search function is. What if Google (or again, a shadowy government official) decides you’re a terrorist because you gave some money to some Muslim charities? What would you do? I’d send some emails and call them, but ultimately, they can ignore me if they’d like.

Am I being paranoid? Yes. But in our world of increasingly efficient–which often means centralized–communication, a healthy dose of paranoia is important. It doesn’t seem that hard for you or your organization to be “disappeared.” I still like Google a good deal and certainly plan to keep using their applications, but I’ll have my eyes open.

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