A touch of evil?

Despite its revolutionary products, Google still draws flak from different quarters
By Zafar Anjum
11 Sep 2009

Google is without doubt one of the most influential and revolutionary technology companies in history. In over a decade’s time, the way Google has risen in the cyberspace and redefined everything—from search to e-mails to applications—is unparalleled.

Today, it is a much admired company. In The Wall Street Journal’s list of Asia’s 200 most admired companies, Google ranks at no 3, just after Apple and Toyota Motors, and above Sony, Nokia and Microsoft.

Perhaps, even unbeknownst to Google, it has been changing the way human beings think and process information. According to Nicholas Carr, the Internet (led by Google) is making us stupid, “chipping away” at our capacity for concentration and contemplation (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, The Atlantic, July/August 2008). The New Yorker’s media writer Ken Auletta is coming out with a new tome on Google titled, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (to be out Nov. 3, Penguin Press).

Not to be evil, a snide reference against Microsoft, is one of Google’s stated mottos. That position of the company is well-known. Yet, the Internet giant has been drawing flak of late for a number of its products.

Is Google the new Microsoft?

When Google started out, it seemed that the company would strict itself to search. But over the years, it has not only entered the space of e-mails (Gmail) and applications (Google Apps) but also that of videos (by acquiring YouTube) and mapping (Google Earth).

In the field of search, Google is the master and commander. In a short space of a decade, Google Search has become the virtual gateway to the Internet. The way Google commercialised search was also unprecedented. Now, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt wants to take Google into a completely new domain: he wants to connect Google straight to our brains. Make whatever you want to make of that!

At one time, hotmail was the king of e-mails. In fact, Sabeer Bhatia, if you remember the US-based Indian techie, was the one who popularised e-mails. Then came Yahoo and a host of other companies providing e-mail services. Gmail, with its unlimited space and search functionalities, completely changed the game.

Similarly, when YouTube became more popular than Google Video, it bought out its rival. Now, do you see any rival to YouTube? There might be some lame imitators but YouTube has emerged as the ubiquitously popular video website.

Now, Google wants to monetize the site’s popularity in unprecedented ways: by reading brain waves to measure the effectiveness of the ads. According to a Wired report, “together with neuroscience  advertising research firm NeuroFocus, Google has measured things likes users’ skin responses, eye movement and an EEG brain scan in response to YouTube InVideo overlay ads. They found that the ads have high levels of engagement, increase user experience and improve brand reponse.”

Google EarthFor a search and software company, it is not clear why Google launched the Google Earth project. But ever since its launch, the project has drawn criticism from people who don’t want Google’s crew taking photos of their neighbourhood. In Europe, there have been reports that people chased away Google’s vans photographing their houses. Moreover, the application’s possible misuse for purposes of terrorism has also been highlighted.

The latest controversy surrounding one of Google’s projects is its programme to digitise and sell millions of books. The plan is ambitious and has been under way for the last few years. But there are major copyright issues surrounding Google’s programme.

US publishers had sued Google for failing to respect their copyright when the company had started digitising books. Later, they reached “a revenue-sharing settlement covering books that are still copyright-protected, ones whose copyright has expired, as well as the huge number of books that are technically still protected but have fallen out of print and where the copyright owner can’t be located”.

But now the plan has hit bad weather in Europe. According to a report, five organisations representing EU publishers, libraries, rights holders and businesses active in Internet commerce told the European Commission at a hearing on Monday (7 September) that the proposed US Google book settlement is unacceptable in its present form, because it would lead to “a de facto monopoly” in the emerging digital books market.

Also, more than two dozen authors and publishers have filed an objection to the proposed settlement. Without stronger privacy safeguards, Google employees, third parties or the US government could obtain lists of the books people have purchased and read, the authors and publishers said in a court filing.

The settlement has no limitations on Google’s collection and use of reader information and no privacy standards for data retention, deletion and sharing of that data with third parties, argued the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.

“If there is no privacy of thought—which includes implicitly the right to read what one wants, without the approval, consent or knowledge of others—then there is no privacy, period,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon said in the court document.

No matter where the controversy goes, past record shows that Google will somehow again prevail. But in an age when privacy of ordinary people are being trampled over left, right and centre, history will remember where Google stood in that equation. It is altogether another matter how much of human history still remains to unfold.

Zafar Anjum is the online editor of MIS Asia portal.
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