Google isn’t evil, just another big business

10 03 2010

Google has had some bad publicity recently. It is in trouble with the EU around monopoly issues. It has decided to pull out of China after the devil’s pact it made with the Chinese government to allow censorship of its search engine finally unravelled. It is widely accused of squeezing out competitors and moving on to other people’s business turf. In addition it has long been looked at suspiciously by privacy campaigners because it has recorded details of every single search by every one of its users from its inception (yes, sorry, even that one you did when you were really drunk that night in 1999). All in all, many people would say that Google’s famous corporate slogan, ‘don’t be evil’ is wearing a bit thin.

 My view on Google is a bit like my take on Microsoft. Years ago Microsoft became corporate enemy number one to those who resented its near monopoly in the desktop and browser market. Big, ground-breaking businesses like Microsoft and Google generally do one really successful thing to establish themselves. In so doing, they create an industry standard which is very user friendly.  Microsoft did it with Outlook and Explorer, Google has done it with search. In the process of doing this they became very rich and powerful. Then, as is the nature of big businesses, they tend to crowd out or absorb competition. This is the way of modern monopoly capitalism and it applies in every sector of the economy. Most of the continued success of big businesses is based upon the fact that their customers are quite happy with the product. When something goes seriously wrong, as happened recently with Toyota, size alone is not enough to protect your business.

 I was always irritated by the ‘don’t be evil’ motto and it has proved self defeating, especially through the acceptance of censorship in China. Businesses have no right to describe themselves as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but should be judged by the quality of their products and their ability to sustain and develop them. Businesses that flagrantly transgress the law or which upset public opinion will receive their punishment in the end. In fact it is surprising how short the main success period span of even the biggest companies often is.

 Campaigning against or resenting individual big businesses is a fairly pointless activity in a society which is based on the market. Leaving aside the conspiracy theorists, there are normally very transparent reasons why businesses do what they do and why they get away with it. Take for example the issue of privacy. There is no doubt in my mind that Google’s retention of search data is a huge invasion of privacy. The only reason it is has got away for it as long as it has is because most people are not bothered by it. But this is because of the prevalent blasé approach to personal privacy which exists within society, not because of anything that Google has done. Anybody who wishes to challenge Google’s right to retain data should be aiming to change society’s view on privacy, not blaming Google for taking advantage of the status quo.

 Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, an advertising house which like many others feels Google is stepping on its toes, recently described Google as WPP’s ‘frenemy’.  This is a very good description of most big businesses. They provide us, sometimes imperfectly, with what we need or desire, but because they are essentially profit making businesses they also want to destroy their competition and to exploit their customers to the full. It’s not personal, it’s business.

A version of this article also appeared on Spiked

Data sharing-the guiding principle should be informed consent

27 11 2009

There are many good reasons why both governments and businesses may want to capture, analyse and share data. Good in the sense that the intention is to create mutual benefit for all concerned. In some ways we would like digital marketing, for example,  to be more targeted than it is, if only to avoid the torrent of spam email inflicted on us. The gathering of statistical information by governments can also be used to plan service provision and state investments in a more rational way. So I do not take  the view that governments and big business are out to get us and that any data gathering is inevitably an unwarrantable intrusion into privacy.

However, while the interests of data  gatherers and those whose data is gathered (datees perhaps?) may be congruent, they also may not. This is a particularly crucial point now that we leave such a long electronic data trial behind us through phones, email and internet browsing. We should understand as well that governments have a secular tendency to gather information for its own sake. This tendency is particularly exacerbated today when politicians and others in the state apparatus are more isolated from their constituents than before. In wishing to reconnect they are very keen on gathering as much information about us in as many ways as they can. Their insecurity also inclines them to want to police society more closely , hence current attempts to have access to all the electronic  data held by phone companies.

The discussion around data sharing and privacy is very complex. However I think there is one principle that, if it were adopted, would enable a way to benchmark what should and should not be allowable. That is the principle of informed consent. In other words, those whose data is being collected should have agreed in advance that this should be so. The principle of informed consent is implicit in any democratic society. If we need a legal definition of informed consent which we could apply to data gathering we can go to the Nuremberg trials of 1947.

The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.

It should be informed because effective democracy requires people to understand what is being done to them and in their name. It should involve active consent because that is the essence of democratic government. In practice this should mean that any information in data form should only be stored or shared with the prior active consent of the individual concerned. There should always be an opt-in rather than an opt-out button. The onus is on the data gatherers and sharers to persuade and convince that this is the right thing to do.

This approach to data sharing is consistent with the view that we are autonomous citizens whose cooperation and consent with the state or with business is an active conscious decision taken with all the facts discuss and debated out in the open. In that sense it is an approach which would contribute towards a broader democratic renewal.