Googlezon: A prescient reflection on media’s future

Do you remember the prescient flash piece about Googlezon? If you haven’t viewed it, set aside a few minutes and check it out.

Created in 2004, it rather accurately describes customized content, crowdsourcing, and social networks. It also predicts the future of media, the fall of newspapers in favor of infotainment, the rise of bloggers. What really interests me in thinking about it today, though, is its prediction that Google, a seemingly benign search engine, would take over the world. True, there were already signs, for example, Google’s creation of their own mail service, but really, Google didn’t seem set for world domination yet. Since the Googlezon piece was created, Google has invested in too many services to name, including Blogger and Youtube, and just last week partnered with Tivo.

Google’s motto “don’t be evil” is puzzling. If a giant corporation says it’s not evil, does that make it true? I only wonder because they recently took over EtherPad, an amazing collaborative tool that most of you probably haven’t heard about. To be honest, I was excited to find a cool writing tool that wasn’t part of the Google franchise. I wanted to support the little guys I guess, and I didn’t want to be served adwords or have my behavior tracked in a not so transparent way. I have no reason to believe I was safer with Etherpad, but I’m beginning to wonder what price I’m paying for my free Internet.

Savvy Internet users should know that their behavior is being tracked on the Internet, but do they act accordingly? Does it bother you that Google serves Adwords related to the content of your e-mails when you’re reading your Gmail inbox? Sure, they’re just pulling text, they don’t really know you. In fact, some of the ads they serve are downright funny. But now I use Google calendar — I have a personal and work calendar. I also use Google docs for work, where I also manage two blogs on Blogger. Any Internet search I do is through Google. Why use AltaVista or another search engine when I like the way Google functions?

In the Googlezon world, magazine subscribers receive a magazine with a picture of their house on the cover, taken by satellite, and content served according to the preferences of each resident. Eerily possible?

I feel like a pretty savvy user–I study how people conduct research on the Internet, after all–but I’m not censoring myself on Gmail. The thing is, I don’t really know what information Google is collecting on me. Sometimes I care, but to be honest, I’m pretty complacent. I mean, their motto is “don’t be evil” and they were started by two grad students at Stanford…I feel like they’re like me…(mostly) normal, well-intentioned people. But I have to remember that Google is a company, a company that is quickly snatching up anything independent that competes with them and offering services that directly compete with mega-corporate Microsoft.

Why don’t I, a savvy Internet user, know what information Google is collecting on me and how they’re using it? Why isn’t Google more transparent? Am I a lazy, uninformed user, or is the company who does no evil being secretive and perhaps downright sneaky with my information? What price am I paying for Google’s free services? I find it interesting that a company that pushes for open source and general openness on their phone is so opaque when it comes to us, our information. Where is Google’s worth, after all? Is it in free searches, book previews, streaming video, news? I think its value lies in us.

What does “being evil” mean exactly, in Google’s terms? To write this blog, I did a quick Google (of course) search on its privacy policy. Google has privacy policy videos available, but how many average users view them? The terms don’t explicitly state how or if Google integrates our information across its various platforms or what exactly is shared with third parties. Understanding how our information is used (collected and shared) should be as easy as sharing our information is — perhaps a status bar similar to the one in the bottom corner of Facebook could subtlely appear and request that we opt in/out of information sharing. As Zittrain and others have asserted, more transparency is necessary. For example, Yahoo recently released an Ad Interest Manager that provides opt in/opt out of information collection/sharing. Similarly, privacychoice.org shows which companies collect information from sites you visit. Information collection isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s a choice, but it’s a choice that we as users have a right to make.

4 thoughts on “Googlezon: A prescient reflection on media’s future

  1. Very interesting note Monica! Thanks for sharing, indeed. In fact I learned many things from you such as that etherpad thing (yes, I just checked it recently after you mentioned it). Truly what Google is doing is having having both good and bad potentials for us the users. But it is important that you stressed out the commercial motive behind this company, regardless the ‘don;t be evil’-kind-of jargon. The way I see it, that is why we need some external factor to have the balance preserved: L.A.W. In a European-style data protection legal regime, data users like Google will have to be answerable relating to their conduct in data collection, use, retention, exploitation, etc. The privacy policy that Google adopts should be measured against these normative rules; one of the home-works for us (end-users or advocates) before finally we can understand what exactly they mean by ‘don;t be evil’.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments, Sonny. I agree that companies like Google need to be answerable (more transparent) about their conduct related to data collection and that it is also our responsibility as end-users to be more aware of the privacy policies of sites we use. It will be interesting to see how the European directives related to transparency will be applied to international companies.

  3. As an illustration to what you said in the last part: one of the latest compromise Google had to make in the wake of the EU Privacy Directive was that they had to shorten the period of time in which Google retain personal data they gain from they online search services. In the future, i foresee more of their conducts will be streamlined to the data privacy rules, at least, in Europe or other countries with similar legal regime.

  4. Monica: I appreciate your thoughtful work here and throughout your blog, very interesting questions you pose and dialogue you are trying to create, I commend you.

    Re: Googlezon I have a few thoughts. First while I agree there is a perception that Sergey and Larry might be like us and embody a “do no evil” philosophy, I would submit that “transparency” and business plan are generally not complementary. Transparency is something we hear more often with regards to the Government and public organizations. What Google is doing with the data they collect is the billion dollar question and my guess is they are banking on certain elements of that to be non-transparent.

    My second thought ties into the above. The shear scope of what Google is doing (free products) and the ground they cover as an Internet organization (virtual ubiquity) very intriguing. I’ll go back to the notion of government and transparency. Google I believe in many eyes is considered a “public good” not a corporate entity. How else would we be able to sort through the mess that is the Internet if we didn’t have Google. You know when a corporation name becomes a verb there’s going to be trouble. So I think again the perception that Google will do good and should do good comes from it’s ubiquity almost in the way that the government is ubiquitous in our lives many times without us being aware of it. Hence the calls for greater transparency.

    So to answer your question with a question what does it mean exactly for government to be evil? We have many examples illustrating real evil that government perpetrate. I guess the hope is that trust in the basic philosophy of Google just like that in the basic tenets of government wins out and the harm that is possible in the name of making money for Google as a corporation remains latent and never realized.

    The interesting test to that philosophy will be when Sergey and Larry and Eric Schmidt pass the reins to new leadership.

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