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Google: An Unfriendly Face

Grim-Reaper-2400pxIain Hill (1L)

Google’s presence in society is palpable. “Google” and “googling” as verbs have permeated the common parlance, and the tech giant is one of the most widespread and discussed companies in the world today. Google markets themselves as a helpful, progressive, friendly entity—youthful and in tune with the values of the day. The public is shown daily “Doodles” with bright colours and pleasing animations. Google’s in-house browser, Chrome, comes with a small endless runner game you can play if a page does not load. Google apps are similarly colourful and user friendly, with a focus on convenience and ecosystem integration. There are some caveats: with all of this convenience and integration comes the collection of user data. We are not supposed to think about this, but rather be ushered back into the bright and colourful world that Google is trying to make (and we must remember the mantra of “Google is making the world a better place”). With a quick web search you can pull a near-endless supply of yes-men who will tell you that this “trade-off” is “worth it” and that we as users “make it willingly” and therefore are deserving of our fates (whatever those fates may be).

It may be, at least in part, an ideological issue. Google represents a neoliberal mindset: governments are either unable or unwilling to make the world a better place, so it is up to pure-hearted corporations with golden ideals to do it themselves. Not only is Google morally well-suited for this task (according to them) but they adhere to the oft-repeated claim of corporate efficiency trumping swamp-like government bureaucracies focused on self-propagation. There are a handful of uncomfortable realities that undermine these ideological claims; also concerning is Google’s track record and their own behaviour which provides a striking contrast to their speech.

The question of Google’s track record is one that invokes increasing discomfort. The desire to be seen as a friendly and lovable search engine giant — with a keen interest and awareness of social issues and the problems with the world today — is met with the reality of a company that is currently embroiled in a costly legal battle in Europe over monopoly laws (Google is currently appealing an antitrust ruling that fined them a massive €2.42 billion for manipulating search engine results). This came on the heels of Google appealing a ruling that led to a €100,000 fine for noncompliance to Europe’s strong “right to be forgotten” privacy rules which allow EU citizens to request removal of personal information from search engines. This resistance on the part of Google, in conjunction with their strong desire to document everything (such as their refusal to remove the addresses of women’s shelters, or their suppression of academic and journalist critiques — the only time Google is quick to delete search results — gives the image of a corporate behemoth perfectly willing to exercise their considerable financial power to achieve their ends. The ends in question are not, contrary to their posturing, the delivery of utopia, but instead market domination and bottom-line profits.

It is difficult to reconcile the friendly face of the Doodles, the TED Talks, and the lofty ideals, with the uncomfortable and disturbing realities of a company whose information collection practices would be the envy of the Stasi. With the total erosion of any distinction between our online and offline worlds (whether we are aware of this or not), the impact of this behaviour is far more real than might be obvious. Google, of course, tries to downplay this and wants people to ignore its actions in favour of its words. It’s easy to shrug and resign ourselves to a fate without privacy, but this comes with the potential for serious consequences (if Google sells your information to a company that gets hacked or the information is leaked, as happens with ever-increasing frequency, or simply if they publish sensitive information on their search engine and you cannot have it removed). With legislation struggling to keep up with issues arising from the digital transformation of society (even in forward-thinking and privacy-minded Europe), Google’s exercise of power remains largely at their discretion. Their efforts to create a friendly outward visage are attempts to mask their true activities, and it is worth bearing this discrepancy in mind. The reality is this: Google is not a search engine, nor is it a digital service provider, software developer, or ethical visionary. It is an advertising company keen on gathering every piece of available information, regardless of consequence, in its attempts to dominate (one might say “monopolize”) market shares.