December 9, 2009

On Google on Privacy

I'd largely retired this blog some time ago but this is important enough that I felt that I should write about it in detail and this is as good a place as any to publish it. This article from the Register highlights the blatant disregard for user privacy that Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google expressed recently. The exact quote:

If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

In a sense he's right: secrets hurt and if you have something to hide, it would be a good idea to examine why one has something to hide in the first place. But that is beside the point when coming from one of the single largest information aggregators on the planet, one that collects and provides all kinds of information including a lot of information that many users don't realize they collect.

The thing that everyone who uses Google's services in any capacity needs to be aware of is this: Google tracks your every move. It's worst if you have a Google account (and you do, if you use any of the following: Gmail, Youtube, Google Reader, Google News, Blogger, Google Docs, and more) because they have a name to associate every detail of your activity with. but it's also a problem if you merely use Google's products anonymously. Google like every website records your IP address along with your activity which enough to find out who you are, and where you were at the time you visited Google. If you use Gmail, Google knows every mail you've sent or received through your account. If you use Youtube, Google knows every video you've posted, every video you've viewed and every comment you've made under your name or otherwise.

People have been bitten by the Internet privacy leak many time before, including Eric Schmidt, who blacklisted CNN's online news service CNET, for publishing unfriendly information about him that they got from Google.

The reason all this is important is because of Google's unique place in the industry. All corporation, no matter the size, whether they are web-based or not are capable of violating the privacy and trust of their clients (Facebook is another serious wildcard for example) but Google corporate motto is "don't be evil," and has earned for itself a place of respect and trust among web corporations by nearly always shining by comparison. For example has for the longest time been one of the most significant and vocal supporters and funders of open sourced software and as a result has contributed greatly to the technological advancement of the Internet, even in ways that do not directly benefit Google (or benefits its competition.) Google produced many high-quality products which it gives away nearly for free, many that the general public didn't realize existed, or could be used in such a way. Google is the shining white knight of the Internet.

Because of this, Google, and it's various websites have grown to extend to nearly every portion of Internet and dominate nearly every field in which that they participate. Blogger a popular blog network, and the one on which you are probably reading this post, is owned and maintained by Google. Youtube is also owned (but not managed) by Google. Together with Google search and Google news, these make up a large portion of information disseminated by the Internet. Think back to the previous national election: which man won the presidential election? The man who's campaign made the most effective use of Internet media, including Youtube videos and political blogs. Think further, when people want to learn about a current event such as a political event, where do they turn? As often as not they use Google to search for information about it. The fact of the matter is, Google is coming to more and more dominate where we get our information. With rise of the Internet, and especially with the collapse of print media, Google is becoming, more and more, the gateway for politics business and current events. I'm not claiming that Google has, or will, even ever will consider, abusing its position, but what I am saying is this: Fast is coming the time that if Google did abuse its position in this way, we wouldn't even be able to know.

As it stands, Google has abused it's position in a number of less egregious ways in the past. Among Google's abuses:

Despite these problems, as far as huge multinationals go, Google is positively benevolent (compare them to the scum sucking IP abuser that is Monsanto.) However Google has proved itself at times to disregard the public Interest for it's own profit and as acquired such power that such abuse could have far-reaching effects and could ruin careless or merely ignorant individuals who have otherwise done nothing wrong. I'm not suggesting people boycott Google, (though that's become a more popular option with some) far from; given Google's increase in power, it is more important than ever to remain involved. What I am suggesting is that people become aware of how their data is used online and how the large companies that control a large portion of the Internet (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo!, etc.) can and sometimes do abuse their power. Remember:

  1. Defend your privacy

  2. Always cross check your sources

  3. Don't trust monopolies, even the good one

One final note: As many of my friends and family know, tend to count myself as a Libertarian. However, unlike many such 'Libertarians' I do not do so because of a faith in the magical properties of the free market to preserve liberty and economic justice and prosperity. While I do believe that the free-market of far superior in both areas to the tyranny of the masses or the tyranny of the few that result from both Socialism and less ambitious 'welfare state' systems, I believe that defense of liberty against tyranny lies neither strength nor weakness of the state or corporate interests, but at the resolve and ability of the individual to defends his rights against the incursions of powerful parties whether they be states or monopolies. I am above all an individualist and as such I strongly recommend every individual to be ever mindful of his rights. If it should happen that your rights are never infringed, it mean not that you wasted your time in defending them, but that you did a sufficient job.

Thank You
Andrew Stine

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