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Google’s “Evil” Problem

2010 September 30

The use of the word “evil” when discussing Google could have been avoided. It’s cartoonish, and has been run so far into the ground that it’s emerged in China[0]. Hearing someone actually use the word “evil” inspires either a dearth of trust, or the mental image of a mustachioed villain – probably both. The association of Evil with the company responsible for many of today’s experiences with web browsing, personal email and internet searches, derives from Google’s private motto: “Don’t be evil.” It can’t be said whether or not Google came out with the phrase “Don’t be evil” with the intent to create a problem so ludicrous that only those prone to fits of hyperbole would bite, but any company would want to make its opponents look as ludicrous as possible as early as possible.

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About a minute after Google became known for their amazing search engine, they became defined by their unique advertising programs: Google Adwords and Google AdSense. The incredibly relevant ads on the side of the screen were based on your search queries and the words in your email messages. To do this, Google was mining the data you fed them for key words, and repeatedly swore up and down that this wasn’t going to turn into a Big Brother situation where the information would turn itself into a permanent record hive-mind that could be sold to the highest bidder.

The following segment of Google CEO Eric Schmidt interview on The Colbert Report is a good example of the blind faith that has been working out for Google so far:

Colbert: Right, it’s an algorithm. That you guys make your cash by doing essentially data mining on what we Americans care about, right?

Schmidt: Not true.

Colbert: Not true? I’m going to go with my explanation. But you do know things about Americans, that we, maybe when we were children, didn’t think people would know about us. Our likes, our dislikes, are codified, regionally, if not individually, correct?

Schmidt: Well, it’s true that we see your searches, but we forget them after a while.

Colbert: Aha. And I’m supposed to trust you on that.

Schmidt: Not only do you have to, but it’s the law in a lot of countries.

– The Colbert Report, 9/21/10

“Not only do you have to.” That’s a real confidence inspiring phrase if I ever heard one.

What followed was that Google’s email service, Gmail, became the default address for everybody you know, in part because Google designed it to be an invitation-only party. In previous decades, marketing companies ramped up the value of exclusivity more and more, sometimes generating a backlash. With Gmail, the exclusivity had no such problem, as they were actually keeping something to be prized behind their velvet rope: email with storage so spacious you would never feel the need to press delete.

Over the years, Google continued this trend of developing online applications – in the process, defining Cloud Computing – and they were able to provide all high-process-services free of charge thanks to their data-mining Google Ad platforms. By never falling to scandal, though, incidents related to this fear that Google itself was crucial in creating, Google was proving its detractors wrong.

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If there has been one thing that Google didn’t understand, it was how to get along with others, how to “do social.” CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple Inc.’s Board Of Trustees, jumping ship only after grabbing onto the mobile phone industry, thus leaving with a wealth of knowledge about how Apple developed the iPhone. This set Apple CEO Steve Jobs off into a furious quote rampage, in a speech that when leaked to the public, validated rumors of a persona that was previously only rumored or blogged about. If you type in “don’t be evil is” into Google’s predictive search page, you only get one suggestion:

The SSL Lock icon seems kind of hilarious when Steve Jobs' words can break through.

Wired’s Epicenter blog quoted an unnamed Apple employee discussing one of Jobs’ company speeches, which, it being as volatile as it is, he must have expected would leak to the press:

We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business. Make no mistake they want to kill the iPhone. We won’t let them. [Someone else asks something on a different topic, but there’s no getting Jobs off this rant.] I want to go back to that other question first and say one more thing. This “don’t be evil” mantra: it’s bullshit.

– Steve Jobs, according to an unnamed Apple employee

Angering one of the most opinionated minds in technology is nothing, though, in terms of demonstrating their lack of understanding social norms. Three pieces of software: Wave, Buzz, and Skyhook, each paint much better pictures.

Google Wave, their attempt at online collaboration software, kept in the tradition of using exclusivity to up the public value of a service. Google believed that standard wait-for-your-invite-in-the-mail exclusivity made sense for something that people wouldn’t already have a use for, and I’ll never understand why that was.

I got an invite in late November of last year, and on Thanksgiving morning, when I sent my first invite out to a friend, they were so elated, they ran to Facebook to voice their thanks. And that was the last time anyone I know was excited about Google Wave. It was online for about a year, and then it was cancelled due to a lack of interest. The Friends-spinoff Joey lasted longer than Google Wave did.


Google Wave’s Introduction Video – Do not be alarmed if you are confused. We all were, and many never found clarity.

Google Buzz is still alive, but I don’t know if anyone knows why. It’s Google’s attempt to create a social network based around already existing content. The link to the network sits adjacent to your Gmail folders, next to spam, drafts, sent mail, etc., so that users don’t leave Google and take their web traffic elsewhere once they’re done checking their email accounts. Most of what I see on Buzz is a mix of imported data, such as users’ blog posts and Twitter statuses, neither of which are imported in realtime.

Very few, if any, are using Buzz as their primary social network. Google is made by worker bees for worker bees, and if worker bees are deficient in anything, it’s socializing. Facebook, on the other hand, was made by college kids for college kids (and is now used by everyone else as well) and it works. It works because most of us are never again as social as we were in college, and the social mores from college are still dominant in the years that follow. Wave just looks like another filing system: its unread posts are a sign that you have more work to do.

After this history of success, failure, and questionable partnerships, we come to the first major news story of Google’s existence where they actually are The Bad Guys. Skyhook Wireless is a GPS location company that had a contract with Verizon, one of Google’s major partners in the Android line of smart phones. For once, Google had been beaten on quality of product: Skyhook’s product is their GPS location service, which operates using local wireless networks instead of nearby mobile phone antenna towers. According to Skyhook’s filing, a Complaint and Jury Demand to the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachussets, Google inappropriately interfered with the contract that Verizon and Skyhook had in place to push out a service that used a better metric and had better code behind it.

Google’s behavior has at least one explanation: their ad revenue was at risk. The rates at which Google charges advertisers increase with the uniqueness of the data they are pulling about the user likely to view the ad, and almost nothing is more unique and valuable than the exact location of the user. It’s likely this deal will head to an out-of-court settlement, and since stories like this differ so much from the initial fear the public had of Google, it may go by ignored either way. But the most recent and ongoing argument that Google is involved with is the debate over net neutrality, one that they used to be on the positive side of, before they had a fiscal obligation to believe otherwise.

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Defining net neutrality is a difficult task. Al Franken (D-MN), the sole American politician who has become outspoken on the matter, frames it in a left/right debate, which makes for a good speech, but in the process lessens the impact. In 2007, Google, speaking out in favor of net neutrality against telecom giant Verizon, used a non-partisan framework of consumer choice, which could only have alienated Verizon, instead of customers affiliated with a specific political party:

The nation’s spectrum airwaves are not the birthright of any one company. They are a unique and valuable public resource that belong to all Americans. The FCC’s auction rules are designed to allow U.S. consumers — for the first time — to use their handsets with any network they desire, and download and use the lawful software applications of their choice. 

- Chris Sacca, in Google’s Public Policy Blog, 9/13/07

Three years and a mobile smartphone partnership later, Google and Verizon are now working together to bend the issue of net neutrality to suit their own product. In August, the two companies released a Legislative Framework Proposal for how net neutrality should be handled. The New York Times had reported, prior to the release of this statement, that the two companies had been working towards an agreement for the internet to have new structural tiers exclusive to those who paid a toll to develop content on that platform. Google, via their Twitter account, released a non-denial denial.

The most questionable and possibly ruinous segment of their proposal is this passage on wireless content:

Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time. The U.S. Government Accountability Office would report to Congress annually on the continued development and robustness of wireless broadband Internet access services.

The rest of the proposal, which was issued by two companies whose bond is entirely based on wireless broadband variety, is largely, but not entirely, in favor of giving the FCC powers to regulate and keep the peace. With regards to the lucrative field at the heart of the tech news and developments of the day, though, in Schmidt’s words, we “have to trust” Google that to enforce a vague[1] definition of the word Transparency is enough.

With a net neutrality deal in place between these two digital superpowers, a smart phone could load Gmail faster than Yahoo Mail, punishing you for your choice, just because Verizon doesn’t have anything to gain from helping Yahoo users, and has access to a better Gmail server than other ISPs do.

Competitors to this partnership – Apple, AT&T, RIM, Palm, Spring, and Microsoft to name a few – have not been rumored to be considering, nor have they announced any similar plan, but if they do, it will likely be seen as something similar to professional athletes who were late to the steroids game, and are only now trying to keep up with the Jones’. A transition to a more bifurcated Internet that is inevitable. This is why the first steps, as vague and complicated as they are, are raising eyebrows of so many.

The complex nature of this topic leads to a lack of discussion on the debate, and in a perfect world, we wouldn’t even be having it. It pains me to say this, but The Economist made a great point when they said:

The best solution would be to require telecoms operators to open their high-speed networks to rivals on a wholesale basis, as is the case almost everywhere in the industrialised world. America’s big network operators have long argued that being forced to share their networks would undermine their incentives to invest in new infrastructure, and thus hamper the roll-out of broadband. But that has not happened in other countries that have mandated such “open access”, and enjoy faster and cheaper broadband than America. Net neutrality is difficult to define and enforce, and efforts to do so merely address the symptom (concern about discrimination) rather than the underlying cause (lack of competition). Rivalry between access providers offers the best protection against the erection of new barriers to the flow of information online.

(The web’s new walls, 9/4/10)

This statement, up front in the Leaders, stands in stark contrast with their Barack Obama Needs To Keep His Hands Off and Respect Big Business message. That even The Economist believes government regulation is necessary, says just how important the situation is.

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A series of computer server hives humming away in synchrony are slowly becoming the backbone of our society. When social networking sites go down, the frustrations are quickly expressed by users on other platforms. When Gmail has brief outages, its users who rely upon it – a free service which has no contractual obligation to their customers, only a monetary one to their shareholders – as a primary communication means, are bewildered, but know that in a few hours, things should be up and running again.

Google’s continued attempts to become everything to everybody, and their continued failures to grasp the social nature of the Internet, display a yearning to grow too big for any legislative britches. They are not evil, but setting Evil as the watermark was a cunning play to make their later moves seem trivial, even as they leverage their dominance whenever necessary.

You can follow Henry on Twitter at @WithAPassion, he also has penned a quick review of The Social Network.

[0] Where Google has been using every synonym for “evil” they can find to describe the mainland Chinese government’s take on the internet.

[1] The transparency principle is defined in the Google/Verizon Framework proposal as a rule that ISPs

would be required to disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language about the characteristics and capabilities of their offerings, their broadband network management, and other practices necessary for consumers and other users to make informed choices.

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3 Responses
  1. September 30, 2010

    Maybe Google should have used “Do no harm” instead, it might have been easier to keep up with.
    I’d argue that Google is probably one of the lesser evil among the choices we have now but that’s just me. Coincidentally, one of my recent posts mentions how I excited I got when I finally got that much coveted Gmail invite a few years back.

    • Henry Casey permalink*
      September 30, 2010

      Hi Ann, thanks for the read and the comment! Who would you say are the greater evils, their competition?

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