Dreaming of Google

Patrick Miner

It’s the perfect example of the “American dream” – in 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Ph.D. candidates at Stanford, began a small business in their friend’s garage. Six years later, when their company went public, they were billionaires and the leaders of Google, Inc., the largest Internet company in the world.
Young billionaires are nothing too new; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both billionaires by the time they turned 30 – what a lot of money for Mr. Jobs to be spending on black turtlenecks and jeans! Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, was a billionaire at 24. But what the monetary perspective fails to capture is the responsibility attached to the leadership positions in corporations like Google, Microsoft and Apple.
It would be difficult to argue that Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg do not hold sway over global economy, global cultures and vast amounts of information, but the behemoth that Google has become is another matter entirely. Google operates millions of servers around the world and processes more data than could fit on all of the computers at Lawrence combined – in a single hour. They do this every hour of every day of every year.
The British comedian Eddie Izzard says the American dream is “to be born in the gutter, and raise, and grow up, and get all the money in the world and stick it in your ears and go [sticks tongue out and makes childish noise]. The American dream! A fantastic dream of money in your ears and swimming through fivers.”
Though mostly a funny remark – as nearly all remarks made by Mr. Izzard are – this joke also says something about the way many Americans do act once they’ve attained a certain socioeconomic status. What should be done with all of this money that billionaires accumulate?
I think Page and Brin have demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be all about money. They each are billionaires on paper through their immense stock options, but their self-selected salaries are one dollar per year. Their strategy with Google has thus far been one that combines ordinary capitalistic success with a philanthropic twist. I have yet to see Page and Brin stick money in their ears and ship off to the Caribbean, but I’m not granting them a free pass.
Yet not everyone is convinced the company is sticking to its unofficial slogan “Don’t be evil.” Recently, Google simplified its privacy policy. This resulted in, for much of the media, a renewed interest in privacy concerns related to Google. The range of products they offer and the nature of their search business requires that the volume of data the company harvests is extremely large. But more than volume, it is the type of information that is collected that worries some consumers. Google has access to an alarming amount of personal information through their products.
Far from just providing a simple – in fact not simple at all – search engine, Google has multiplied its services in recent years to include email, picture editing, a web-browser, collaborative office suites, productivity applications like calendars and more.
They also own YouTube and the Android operating system for mobile phones and other devices. YouTube’s prominence in Internet social activity needs no explanation. Phones equipped with Android are now outselling all competitors.
The San Jose, Calif. newspaper Mercury News pointed out Sept. 10 that in a matter of months, “Google’s Android smartphone operating system will in a single year have leapfrogged competitors like Apple’s iPhone, Research in Motion’s Blackberry and Microsoft Windows phones in global popularity.” These three companies have developed their presence in the mobile phone market for several years, yet Android will surpass them all a year after its debut.
I must confess, I have an Android phone and I use Google’s web-browser, Chrome. I’ve also been using Gmail since a year after its launch in 2004, and I use Google Docs on my computer rather than buy overpriced software like Microsoft Office. Google’s products are well made, emphasize cloud- or internet-based storage rather than storage on a computer or phone, and they are integrated with one another to provide a smooth experience. Oh yeah, and they’re free.
Google offers paid services such as office suites for companies and organizations, but the majority of its revenue is generated by their immense advertising business. This enables them to offer most products free to their users. I don’t pride myself on having bought in to – or rather, “signedup” into – Google’s world, but I just find it extremely useful.
If my computer were to crash, I wouldn’t lose any of my documents. If I lost my phone I wouldn’t lose any of my contacts. If I need to read an email from 2005 about my high school days, I can.
The benefits of cloud storage and the room to breathe afforded by Google’s large capacity limits on its services are numerous, but can they make up for potential sacrifices in privacy?
According to Google’s recent privacy policy update, they have “five privacy principles that describe how [they] approach privacy and user information across all of [their] products:
1. Use information to provide [Google’s] users with valuable products and services.
2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
5. Be a responsible steward of the information [Google] hold[s].”
I think that these principles show an openness about policy that is rare among multinational corporations. The transparency referred to in the third principle is, I think, a cause for much of the alarm surrounding Google and privacy. But perhaps other companies, like Comcast and AT&T, don’t inform users of their data-mining practices as clearly as Google does. I’m in no way endorsing over-eager data collection, but I don’t find Google’s actions to be more worrisome than, say, telecommunications companies that send information to the federal government without legal justification.
I hope readers will feel free to write in to The Lawrentian to share an opposing or related view.