The dangers of a data monopoly.
We marvel every day at the wealth of information at our fingertips. We can now access information on any subject instantly, wherever we are, and get real-time data on anything from weather to financial markets to what our friends are doing via a huge network of interconnected sources.
No one is creating more of those data connections than Google. But let’s take a look at how Google is using its array of services to create data profiles on each and every one of us.
What Google knows and how:
- Google Mail – your name & DOB, plus all the content from the emails you receive and send
- Google Search – what things you look for (yes everything) across the web
- Google Chrome – what websites you visit
- Google Analytics – what you then go on to do on these websites
- Google Checkout – your bank details and what you spend on online
- Google Maps – where you live, how you travel and where you want to go
- Google Streetview – what your house looks like and the road it is on, even your car outside
- Google Now – where you are, where you work, your daily routine and traffic in your area
- YouTube – what videos you watch and content you like to consume
- Google Content Network – what advertising you respond to
- Google Books – what books you read
- Google Docs – what files you store and what is in them
- Google Photos – what you look like, your family looks like and what you get up to
- Google Flights – where you want to go on holiday
- Google Voice – what your voice sounds like and the vocabulary you use
It’s actually harder to come up with a list of things Google doesn’t know about you!
Still not convinced? That’s ok, Google even came up with a service to show you what they know about you. Test yourself with Google My Activity – it should bring home to you how NOTHING escapes their view. And this isn’t even the sneaky stuff!
The dangers of a data monopoly
Without wishing to scare you with horrible visions of a dystopian future, we do need to think about the possible future risks of a single entity – and an unelected corporate entity at that – having so much data about the entire world and all the people in it that they can monopolise human knowledge itself. That’s a hard situation to fight back from, as perfectly described with astonishing foresight by George Orwell in his novel 1984.
Wikipedia contains a summary of some of the issues Google have been criticised for. Other than the regular corporate malfeasance of tax avoidance etc., some of the other issues could have bigger consequences, namely:
- Antitrust and unfair competition
- Copyright infringement
- Breach of privacy
We’ve already seen some of the outcomes of the effects of monopoly by giant tech companies. Yes Microsoft, we’re talking about you. But Google in 2019 are a far bigger beast for even governments to tackle than Microsoft were in 2001. Just think about it: Alphabet (Google’s overall trading entity) is one of the largest companies in the world; Google has more money than banks; Google’s sudden algorithm changes with no warning (Penguin and Panda) devastated many businesses overnight…
What sort of leverage does that power allow you?
Here’s a small but pretty scary example. In 2013 Sweden issued a list of new words in the Swedish language, one of which was ‘ungoogleable’. Google objected and forced the word to be removed from the list. They claimed this was related to their trademark but if Google has the power to start impacting decisions about language itself based on what they do and don’t like, then where does that end?
Is this the future equivalent of ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ If a word can’t be found on the Internet because Google decided not to index it, can it ever enter our language and find an existence?
So, what does Google say their mission is? They’re very clear:
“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Perhaps the questions we should be asking ourselves (and Google) are:
- What limitation should there be on Google’s organisation of data? To organise data is to inherently have an element of control over it.
- How can we ensure Google remain true to universal accessibility of data? The moment they limit access they are on a dangerous path to authoritarianism. You could argue they are already failing on this count in multiple ways.
- And finally, how can we ensure that organisation and access never becomes ownership? The moment Google or any other corporation seeks to own our data we may become unable to democratically govern our politics, our society, our very culture. We’d effectively lose control of our modern world.
For now, panic over… but watch this space as I believe some sort of control for Google is required – above and beyond what is in place now. And it occurs to me that, even to write this article, I am using Google services to research information. How do I know that Google are allowing me unfettered access via search to all the truthful information out there?