Laudatores: Rena Tangens & padeluun, Digitalcourage
The BigBrotherAward in the category Global Data Acquisition goes to
Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt, Founders and Board of Directors of
Mountain View, California, USA.
This award is not going to criticise individual transgressions against privacy and data protection. Neither will we denounce individual passages in the company’s Terms and Conditions. No: the company itself, with its global, all-encompassing data hoarding, the monitoring of users as the core of its business model, its de-facto monopoly – those are the problems.
Google must be broken up.
Most of you may still view Google as a search engine. But Google has become something completely different. Google is first and foremost a global advertising company. Advertisements are the business with which Google earns its billions. All other Google services are subordinate to that. They either serve to elicit as much information about the target group as possible (Search, Maps, Docs, Gmail, etc.), or to create a “cool” self-image (Google Mars, Glass, …) – after all, the image not only helps to promote the business, it also creates an aura of political unassailability.
Of course, in their own words, Google’s business goals sound very different: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That is a claim to power, because the meaning behind this is: Google acquires all the world’s information and utilises it. Obviously, in order to organise information and make it accessible, one has to possess it first.
We are not going to enumerate all of Google’s services. There are dozens of books out there telling you about them.
In the advertising market, Google has something of a monopoly now. To be noticed, one must come to terms with Google – by paying money to Google for Adwords, its sponsored search results, for example. Paying money isn’t bad, what’s bad is that there is almost no alternative, now that Google controls more than 75% of the global search engine market and more than 90% in Germany.
Those trying to make money from their website’s content use Google Adsense to insert context-dependent advertising banners into their pages, and they install Google Analytics on their site, registering and evaluating all visitors to the page and thus surrendering them to Google.
The well-meant advice to avoid publishing too much about oneself on the net does not help here. Because the data Google collects about us are not consciously published online. They are created “en passant” as a by-product.
According to insiders, Google evaluates at least 57 different markers to identify us and filter our search results, and many of these are used even when we are simply using the search engine, or Maps or YouTube, without being logged into a Google account. It is not disclosed what these markers are. Presumably, they include IP address, browser, operating system, screen resolution, installed fonts – the browser “fingerprint” – and perhaps also whether or not we use search terms suggested by the auto-completion, how long we look at a results page, or how frequently we make typos.
Google knows who we are, where we are, and what is important to us. Google not only knows for which terms we searched in the past, but also on which results we actually clicked. Google knows minutely when we were awake on any day, which people, news, books we have been interested in, which diseases we have investigated, which places we visited, which videos we watched, and which ads appealed to us.
We may not remember what we did on an arbitrary day last year – Google knows. Not just about us, but about billions of other people as well.
Google’s profiling happens everywhere. It has reached beyond the Internet for a long time now. Google has sent camera cars through the streets of the world, taking unsolicited snapshots of life in the streets and images of buildings. At the same time, Google sniffed out WiFi data valuable for geolocating. Oops, of course Google didn’t intend to do that, it was just a programmer’s slip-up.
With their new hip product “Google Glass” (data glasses, capable of recording pictures, videos and audio, and sending it all off to Google), technophilic consumers will unwittingly start collecting data on Google’s behalf as human drones, starting at the end of this year: on trains, at parties, in editing room meetings. Just one pan from left to right, and Google’s face detection could kick in and register everyone present, and casual as well as confidential conversations could be recorded.
You won’t even need to type anything. Google knows who you are, what you are, where you are, what you care about and who your friends are.
But Google would never do anything bad with this information! After all, their motto is “don’t be evil”. Even if we were to believe Google: This collection of personality profiles of billions of people, accumulated over the years, is a danger in itself. What would happen if the shareholders were to demand more money, or if Google were sold to another company? What happens to the data if it falls into really evil hands? And which government, which intelligence agency wouldn’t love to get their hands on this information? In 2012 alone Google received 42,000 official information requests, of which more than a third were from American agencies.
Did you know what the most frequent search terms in Google were in 2012? They were “Facebook” and “YouTube”. You might not find that very interesting. But it is, since it shows an alarming development: Google has become the central portal to the Internet. People entering “Facebook” as a search term do not want to search information about Facebook. They want to navigate to the Facebook website, but cannot be bothered to enter the complete web address, so they just throw it at Google. This informs Google about every step they take on the net. How did that happen? Well, it is the gentle force of fact, namely the fact that Google is most browsers’ default search engine. Of course you can change this preset, but who does? Everything works fine as is.
Years ago many users changed from the Internet Explorer to the Open Source browser Firefox, to escape from the evil software giant Microsoft. But how free is Firefox, when the lion’s share of its funding has been contributed by Google? In 2011, the Mozilla foundation received US$ 130 million per year, 85% of their total revenue. Currently Google pays US$ 300 million annually for the privilege of being the default search engine in the Firefox browser. Details of the agreement are trade secrets. In matters relating to its own business, Google is not so keen on making all information accessible and useful. The same goes for the search algorithms, and the markers Google records of its users.
The reputation of any other company with such surveillance capabilities would surely suffer. Not so for Google. Wherever Google is criticised, its fans come to the rescue. Google couldn’t be at fault, that’s just the nature of the Internet. The service they provide is great. (Well, it is). And it’s just the way users want it. And anyway, everything is a lot more open now. And if you don’t like it, you can learn computer programming yourself. Or just go away.
Google makes information accessible. Free of charge. And that’s what makes it popular. At the same time, Google is establishing itself as central information broker and is gradually becoming an indispensable public service. Nobody really likes to ponder over that.
Yes, Google grants free admission to Disneyland. But it also installs itself as the omnipresent doorman, registering everything and everyone, and never losing sight of them.
Google cleverly exploits its image of being free and open, suggesting that progressive technology implies progressive politics. Being part of Google’s “Summer of Code” is cool for programmers; they’ll keep wearing the T-shirts for years to come. Youngsters participating in Google’s “Hackathon” get an official reception at the European Parliament. Brussels’ “in-crowd” of employees of European Parliament members regularly meet on Google’s premises for a round of pinball, small talk and drinks. That’s cute, but it’s also what lobbyists would refer to as “cultivating relationships”.
Science also gets its share. Google awarded the petty sum of 3.5 million Euros to the Humboldt University in Berlin for its associated “Institute for Internet and Society”. Google board member Eric Schmidt claims the institute is completely independent. Sure. We don’t assume that the scientists at this institute have let Google just simply “buy” them. They were already researching topics highly interesting for Google, such as copyright law. And to see a professorship at the university that used to work critically on “Computer Science in Education and Society” not being re-staffed for work in the same subject area (because now there is the “Google Institute”), … who could blame Google for that?
And then there’s “Co:llaboratory”, Google’s think tank in Berlin that invites scholars and activists for discussions about interesting topics. And it gets them involved. Just recently Co:llaboratory asked the Working Group on Data Retention (“Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung”) about developing a common catalogue of questions to political parties for the German federal election in September 2013. Collaborating with the world’s largest data leech? Hello?
No, Google is not the defender of the free net. It is a company with very specific interests. This data leech will only foster the free net as long as it is beneficial to its own business with the data by-catch.
So what about us? We are at least partly to blame, for having been taken in so easily. For our naïveté, our small-minded parsimony, our “I-don’t-care-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-harm-me” mentality.
We act like Peter Schlemihl from Adelbert von Chamisso’s fairy-tale. He sells his shadow to a friendly gentleman, in exchange for a bottomless wallet. Schlemihl never considered his shadow to be of any significance, but as soon as he no longer has it, he finds that people shun and despise him. He would like to undo his deal, but the once friendly gentleman shows his true face, and quickly changes his terms of service: Schlemihl can get his shadow back not for money, but only in exchange for his soul. As soon as he gets his hands on the shadow, the friendliness vanishes, and what comes to light is the monopolist’s arrogance.
Google’s niceness ends abruptly when its core business is involved. in March 2013, Google removed the advertisement filter “Adblock” from its Android App Store “Google Play”.
Meanwhile we open our doors and firewalls and accept gifts borne by crafty Greeks from Mountain View, so nicely arrayed in front of us. We will pay dearly. Google is a Trojan Horse.
You don’t believe that Google is “evil”? Maybe they mean well. But their Californian technocrat’s dream has totalitarian aspirations. If you don’t believe it yet, just listen to Google a little more closely.
Quote from Eric Schmidt, of Google: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Someone who perceives themself to be under constant surveillance and has reason to assume that the information stored may harm them at some time in the future, will hesitate to exercise their basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly. If that happens, it is no longer a private matter, as it causes damage to the general public and to a living democracy.
Eric Schmidt once more: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions …They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”
This is getting creepy. We can imagine how much Google needs to know about us, to be able to achieve that.
People are flexible and react to their environment. Whoever is under constant surveillance, being registered, commercialised, and accompanied by specially tailored offers will change their behaviour over time, aligning it with the expectations of those evaluating the data. This is a kind of manipulation we no longer recognise as such under our filter bubble.
Sergey Brin of Google: “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”
And Larry Page: “‘It will be included in people’s brains, […] Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”
This is no longer about an individual leeway that everyone can negotiate for themselves. This is about basic human rights, which are inalienable. It is about the common good and about democracy.
What should the Trojans have done to the wooden horse?
The answer is simple: Break it into pieces!
And that is what we have to do to Google.
In the 80s we set out to give people power over their computers and their data. PCs, personal computers, became an intelligent tool for everyone. Freedom. Adventure. The final frontier. Before that, people were reduced to typing something on dumb terminals, connected to mainframe computers. It looks increasingly as if that liberation is only a passing phase. We’re on our way back to mainframe technology. Google will be the gigantic supercomputer and our smart phones, tablets and netbooks are today’s dumb terminals with a new design.
What can we do?
We can start by using a different search engine. Have you heard of MetaGer? Ixquick? Startpage? Yandex? DuckDuckGo? Tineye? Discover Diversity! We should store letters, strategy papers and spreadsheets on our own servers instead of Google Docs. We should look for a small email provider and pay for the service. Leave our comfort zone and re-assert our responsibility.
Well, yes. Online life will be a little less comfortable. But it will remain, or finally become, worth living.
What can politicians do?
It is certainly auspicious that European data protection officials have closed ranks against Google, which has flatly refused to conform to legal requirements. But where are the Members of the European Parliament who are willing to turn down the hordes of lobbyists from the US and become involved in creating a European privacy and data protection legislation worthy of its name? Where are the politicians who understand the reach of the global information monopoly and start acting? Monopolies must be regulated – and services that have become a public utility must be put under public supervision.
We need a common search index accessible by all search engine vendors, maintained by a European foundation and publicly funded. This would give small companies with insufficient funds, but good ideas for web searching, a chance and there could once again be true competition.
What should Google do?
Dear Googles, forget this world domination thing. Stop treating humans like vegetables and use your innovative spirit for something truly challenging. Use it to develop new business models that foster the network and society, and are not based on the exploitation of our personality.
Congratulations on the BigBrotherAward 2013, Larry Page, Sergey Brin und Eric Schmidt of Google.