It’s Google’s Universe and We’re Just Visiting

In 1999, the year after Google was launched, former Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy glibly said: “You have zero privacy … Get over it.”

By then, Google had cached about 25 million web pages, but hadn’t yet started Gmail and AdWords, its networked advertising service.

Now Google’s search engine has indexed 46 to 50 billion pages. Its About Google page is a carefully scripted value statement with a nod to its goal of “making the whole world searchable,” along with links to its large stable of products and services.

Do we have zero privacy? That is very hard to answer. But certainly what we think of as privacy has, in the context of Google, been radically altered. We now equate privacy with information control: management of personal information through a set of predetermined options that Google has established as pertinent to our privacy.

The issue of privacy is infinitely more complex now than in 1999. It helps if we think about Google not so much as a search company, but as an information company and, in some ways, an information regulator.

In 2012, Google updated its privacy policies and terms and conditions of use governing its products and services. This ensured Google could share data between different products under a single privacy “umbrella.”

For instance, Google monitors Gmail accounts to track and match keywords with a user’s search queries to refine search results and personalize advertising. Throw location data into the mix, which is an important aspect of both Google Maps and Google’s mobile ecosystem built around the Android operating system for smartphones and tablets, and an incredibly powerful profiling system emerges.

Where we are, who we are, what we are doing, what we search for, who our friends and family are, and what we communicate about is logged day after day, week after week, and year after year.

Google catalogues all this data and makes sense of it through algorithms — complex rule sets that index web pages, rank pages, co-ordinate personalized advertising, link people in Google+ and suggest search terms when we start a search in Google.

Google’s algorithms make sense of all the data about all of its users and all of the information, web pages and everything else connected to the Internet.

As Google clients, we trust it to “know” almost everything and, taken another way, Google is constructing and defining reality by organizing information that is curated, analyzed and served up to us by algorithms.

It’s pushing us toward what some researchers see as an “algorithmic culture;” a culture organized and defined by the logic of algorithms.

Google’s systems remain opaque and non-transparent to us even as we become more transparent to it.

The corporation has assembled, through strategic acquisitions and venture capital investment, an impressive array of innovative technology that extends well beyond search services. Yet they are all linked by some aspect of information and augment Google’s dominant position in the ownership and control of global information flows.

For instance, Google owns 23&Me (DNA analysis), Google Fiber (a high-speed network), Nest Labs (home automation), Dropcam (home surveillance), DeepMind (artificial intelligence), and Skybox Imaging (Earth observation satellite technology).
Google is assembling information archives that lend insight into almost every aspect of life on Earth, from people and places to processes and things.

This objective is framed in the company’s mission statement: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

But what does this mean and how can anyone or anything retain a measure of meaningful privacy in that world?

Google does give us just enough leverage in our user account settings to tweak the all-seeing algorithms.

But let’s not kid ourselves: that is not privacy, that’s a meagre amount of control over public access to our personal information.

So when you’re on Google, it’s worth remembering: It’s Google’s universe, and we’re just visiting.

Sandra Robinson is an instructor and undergraduate supervisor in Communication Studies at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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