Absolute Power Corrupts Even Google

Aiding and abetting tyranny.

"Don't Be Evil."

No, this is not one of Bill and Ted's wise sayings; that would be, "Be excellent to each other!"  On the contrary, it is the motto of one of the world's largest, richest, and youngest major corporations, that first screen on countless millions of computer browsers, the would-be index of all human knowledge: Google.

In many ways, Google is an example of the American Dream Come True: a couple of young unknowns have an idea for a service hardly anyone even knew was needed, risk their livelihoods to place it before the public, and reap riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

But the Google Guys are not content merely with joining the glitterati and hobnobbing around the world in their private 767 with matching king-sized beds.  They want their company to be more than a source of limitless wealth for their stockholders and fame for themselves; they want it to be a force for moral good.  Hence their motto.

There are several fundamental problems with this laudable-sounding goal.  As the Good Book says, "No man can serve two masters."  Google is increasingly finding itself in awkward predicaments caused by their - how do you say it? - moral snobbishness, when combined with their fiduciary duty to do their very best to earn profit as the law requires of the managers of all public corporations.

This is not to say that companies can't be moral: they can and should be.  When you wear your morals on your sleeve as Google does, though, don't be surprised when people are eager to point out where you fall short.

Profitable Perfidy

The cynics on the left like to say, "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."  This is a false calumny against the successful; however, as with many lies, it contains a germ of truth.  While it's possible to get rich honestly and to "do well while doing good," there appear to be many more opportunities for profit on the Dark Side.  By setting itself up as a moral arbiter, Google is proclaiming its intent to stay far from the edge.

What, then, are we to make of some of their policies?  For example, a primary source of Google revenue is its AdSense operation, in which Google places ad-links on myriad websites, sells them to advertisers, and pays a fee to the webmasters.  In the reams and reams of legalese in Google's Terms of Agreement (TOA) for this service you'll find this gem:

We reserve the right to disable any account at any time. If your account is disabled, you will not be eligible for further participation in the AdSense program.

For many online businesses, ad revenue is the only source of income.  According to this agreement, without which you can't do business with Google at all, Google can, at their sole discretion, boot you out of the program for any reason or no reason, with no notice, recourse, or appeal.

In effect, Google has reserved unto itself the power to arbitrarily destroy your business at any moment with or without a reason.

Other addenda to the TOA go into details which are even scarier.  Google naturally doesn't want to support fraud and reserves the right to investigate any allegations.  Here again, though, there is no appeal: at its sole discretion, Google can refuse to pay you ad revenues you've already earned if they merely think there might be something funny going on.  Isn't it evil to ignore due process?

There is nothing the least bit illegal about this.  Google's terms of agreement are clearly stated for you to agree or disagree as you prefer, but wielding the executioner's ax over countless small businesses is hardly what you'd expect of a company whose first rule is "Don't be Evil."  Wouldn't it be more un-evil for them to, say, submit disputes to binding arbitration? Or to provide some mechanism for appeal before putting you out of business?  This is not uncommon in the business world, yet Google elects not to.

This decision is good for Google's bottom line because appeals and due process are very costly, but holding on to arbitrary power increases Google's evil-ness.  The two goals conflicted, and evil won.

Imposed Bias

You might think, "Well, Google is a gigantic company.  They aren't going to mess up their market by being heavy-handed."  Quite the contrary: precisely because Google is a gigantic company, the executives are able to impose their views at will.  Their views are very well-known: they're far leftists.

There have been many allegations of Google purging conservative websites from their Google News indexing service; there are also examples of Google's subsidiary YouTube removing conservative videos while refusing to remove pornography and wanton violence.

There's nothing wrong with the founders of Google supporting whatever views they please.  In principle, there's not a lot wrong with Google as a corporation supporting the manager's views as long as they are open and honest about it.  Again, though, isn't censorship "evil"?  Apparently censorship is not evil when you're censoring conservatives; the Mainstream Media would agree.

The Right of Free Association

Once upon a time, individual business proprietors had the right to refuse service to any customer for any reason.  Many used this privilege in ways we'd now call evil: it was difficult for black people to travel freely across the Jim Crow South, for instance, because white hoteliers, restaurateurs, and even gas station operators would refuse to do business with them.  While it's bad enough for an individual shopkeeper to refuse service for racist reasons, it's far worse when a major, large transport firm does so.

To address this problem, our legal system has evolved the concept of a "common carrier."  A common carrier is required to offer its services in a non-discriminatory way - that is, it's forbidden to pick and choose who it wants to serve.  In exchange, it is protected from liability for any crimes its customers may commit.

That's why the telephone company is not a co-conspirator when Mafia dons discuss their plans over the phone and why an airline won't get in trouble for handling stolen property when a bank robber flies his haul to Rio on an ordinary plane ticket.  They merely provide the service: how you use it is up to you.

Is Google a common carrier?  They say they aren't.  So far, at least, the laws and obligations of common-carrier status have not been extended to the world of the Internet.  Should they be?  The jury is still out; but again, Google has held themselves up to a higher standard that they don't appear to be following.

Big Brother's Partner

Doing evil on your own is bad enough.  It's even worse when you team up to aid and abet other evildoers.  Isn't one of the hallmarks of doing good resisting the evil of others?  Alas, Google's track record here is execrable.  According to the BBC:

Leading internet company Google has said it will censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China's fast-growing market... The company is setting up a new site - Google.cn - which it will censor itself to satisfy the authorities in Beijing. [emphasis added]

Google's argument here is that it's better to cooperate with the Red Chinese than to be banned.  Poppycock!  For sure it is more profitable, at least in the short term, to cooperate with the world's richest Communists; but how is it better?

The "Great Firewall of China" is routinely pierced by hackers within; are we to believe that the thousands of geniuses and billions of dollars at Google's command couldn't concoct some sort of encryption or tunneling software to circumvent Chinese government's censorship?  RIAA and the MPAA have fought for years against peer-to-peer music downloading networks with minimal success, even though peer-to-peer is suported by unpaid hobbyists.

Admittedly a national government is more powerful than even a well-funded industry pressure group, but basement hackers are nothing compared to Google.  Google could waltz through the "Great Firewall" and serve the cause of freedom, at the sacrifice of some relatively paltry Chinese ad revenue.

Yet not only do they choose not to, they pretend they are making the moral choice when clearly they aren't.  We know that information is power; our taxpayers supported Radio Free Europe for many years to good effect.  By giving away software to beat the firewall, "Information Free Google" would have made knowledge available to a billion victims of tyranny and put Google on the right side of future copyright lawsuits, yet Google would rather take blood money than oppose systematic oppression.

Speaking of restricting information flow, CNET reports the following:

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) and Drugstore.com, one of the biggest online pharmacies, have contacted several sites, including search engine provider Google, Microsoft's MSN Web portal and America Online, saying that they have run ads from illegal distributors. NABP and Drugstore.com want the sites to agree not to run ads from distributors unless they are certified by the industry organization.

Don't let the word "illegal" confuse you.  It may very well be that some of these drug vendors are not obeying the law, in which case the law should be enforced by the appropriate government authorities.  The NABP, however, is not a law-enforcement group; it's an industry association.  They are not asking the ad vendors to enforce the law (it's not their job); they are asking them to blacklist any companies that have not chosen to join their association and paid to be "certified" by them.  They want the advertising system to grant them a monopoly to determine who can and who can't advertise on the Internet.

Isn't this an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade?  Google's response to this outrageous strong-arming is not yet known; but clearly the NABP has observed their behavior in China and figured it was at least worth a try.  You're known by the company you keep.

Aiding and Abetting

Many of the problems with Google aren't really restricted to that one company; they are inherent in modern computing technology and low-cost disk drives.

Consider the current scourge of identity theft.  Years ago, it would have taken a forklift and tractor-trailer truck to steal thousands of people's personal information - and that's assuming you could find out where it was all filed.  Today's bureaucrats walk out the door every day with not thousands, but millions of people's private information all neatly indexed on computer disks and laptop hard drives, ripe for the stealing or losing.

Google's stated goal is to index all the information of the world.  That's extremely useful to us and extremely profitable for them; it's hard to imagine how modern life could be conducted without Internet searches.  In a very real way, Google has made Scragged possible.  The trouble is, it's not necessarily a good idea to have every bit of information immediately to hand.

We've reported before on how the EZ-Pass electronic toll-payments system has created a record of who was where which is of use to divorce lawyers.  Previously, the suspicious spouse would have to first have suspicions and then pay a detective to tail their mate; now, the information is already stored, merely awaiting a subpoena. Google's massive databases have created exactly the same effect on a larger scale.

This month brings us news that

Google is to be forced to release the records of every video watched on YouTube, including user names and web addresses, to entertainment company Viacom after a US federal court ruling.

Think about that for a moment.  In a completely unrelated lawsuit, a judge is requiring Google to turn over to another firm a comprehensive list of everyone who has ever watched any YouTube video!  It's bad enough that this data is going to Viacom, a widely-despised corporate bully; in this case, Google fought the good fight in court as best they could.  But the real question is, what the heck was Google doing with all these data anyway?

Of course Google "knows" who is viewing what, it's inherent to the Internet.  In much the same way, the phone company "knows" who you are calling so they can send you a bill.  But it's not normally indexed in such a way as to allow anyone to find out everyone who called a particular number after the fact.

The only way the Feds can do that is if they get a warrant beforehand, and make the phone company tap the lines and keep records going forward.  Yet here is Google storing all this data, for no particular reason, just waiting for some court to come along and demand it.  Why?

One of the the Democrats' favorite talking points against the Patriot Act is that it allows the FBI to secretly get hold of library records.  What right have they to find out what books you've been reading?  Even at the height of the Red Scare, J. Edgar Hoover didn't do that!

We forget that in the 1950's, Hoover couldn't do that - regardless of what the law might have said, it simply wasn't possible.  Remember the old-style library system, with a paper card in the back of each book that you signed when you took the book out?  The librarian could tell who had what books out right now - but the only way to find out all the books that someone had borrowed over the last year would be to individually examine every card in every book in the whole library.  And that's assuming you could read the signatures...  Now, though, a few keystrokes can generate a list of all the library activity since the computer was installed.  Again, why?

When designing computer systems, it's tempting to want to store everything.  Tempting, but dangerous.  Far more important is making sure that sensitive data are destroyed after its time of utility has passed.

Was Google doing anything with the records of who watched what?  We don't know, but we can sure imagine!  You and I may not be able to deduce names from IP addresses, but Google collects traces of just about everything anyone does anywhere on the web.  Don't you think they can put this together to target advertising at you?  The better they target, the more they can charge, after all.

The high-priced lawyers at Viacom figured out that Google not only stores IP addresses but also names and user profiles. All they had to do was convince a court to require Google to cough them up, which didn't turn out to be too hard, and now they have an inestimable treasure-trove of sometimes scurrilous information.

Do you really want Viacom knowing each and every YouTube video you've ever watched?  Do you want your employer to know that?  How about your spouse?  We all have skeletons in the closet, some more than others of course.

Wouldn't things had turned out a lot less evil if Google simply hadn't stored these data at all?  You can't subpoena what doesn't exist.

The Central Chokepoint

Whenever everything runs through one central point, that is a point of great vulnerability and danger.  The fact that Google and its subsidiaries control such a commanding percentage of the world's Internet search, ads, video postings, Google docs, spread sheets, and who-knows-what-all makes them a one-stop shop to find out anything you need.  That's great if you're a researcher; but it's even more convenient for totalitarians, lawyers, and government snoops.

Is there any law preventing Google from storing all this information?  Of course not.  And are they lying to anyone?  No - doubtless their privacy policy tells the full truth of what they're hanging on to, and clearly states that they'll hand anything over to the government if the law demands.  As well they should; that's not the point.

We don't expect Google to violate the law; but if they were serious about not being evil, they would have thought through the consequences beforehand of storing up massive piles of tempting information.

Don't be evil?  Fat chance.  Instead of a moral paragon, Google is becoming a moral lesson.  Let's hope others are watching, and learning.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
Libs believe it's okay to censor conservatives because they believe that censorship was CREATED by conservatives to censor everybody else. Ergo, limiting conservatives is like lopping off the head of the snake.
July 14, 2008 12:48 PM
I agree with a lot of this; I've even had direct access to Google's biased censorship where I work.

However... the stuff about Google storing data ahead of time that they shouldn't have it a bunch of BS. Knowledge is power in EVERY business and there is no business on the planet that would not want to store every bit of traffic data they can find when it comes to their web-based products. They'd be foolish not to do that.

Storing all that stuff - who, what, where, how often - is PRECISELY what gives businesses competitive advantages in how they think up new features to add in the future (based on who liked what before) and who to target them to specifically (you visited this video - perhaps you'd like this similar one).

Google is definitely not "not being evil" in a number of legitimate ways. But the data storage isn't one of them.

Instead, let's focus on why the US government should have the right to get all that stuff. What gives the feds the right to ever subpoena those files (other than the precedent of having done it before)? There's nothing Constitutional about that.
July 14, 2008 12:54 PM
I would guess that this web site also stores information on users. Or do you delete that like you say Google should?
July 15, 2008 7:54 AM
Who gives a shit what this site stores? Everybody stores data on everybody. That's the way of the internet. What rock have you been hiding under?
July 15, 2008 3:33 PM
Sure enough, here's Google censoring more conservative writers, bloggers this time:

August 1, 2008 3:18 PM
And now the issue has appeared in a real newspaper.

August 5, 2008 10:08 AM
I found that Google drops sites that present a conservative point of view. I also find that it is only the American Google that dropped most of my blog.

Obviously, Google doesn't believe in posting both sides of issues.

I now use Yahoo for my surfing.
March 18, 2009 6:59 PM
Fortunately, the invisible hand of the market will slap Google around if they do this too much, just as it is now slapping Microsoft alongside the head.
March 18, 2009 10:12 PM
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