Technology & Science

Google needs to be more open, author of new book says

Author Randall Stross, who has written a new book on Google, says the company is going to need to change how it deals with the public's personal information

In a short 10 years, Google Inc. has become one of the most valuable companies in the world, and certainly the hottest commodity on the internet. Along the way, the company that started out as a simple search engine provider has expanded into other businesses — news, maps, e-mail, productivity software, as well as many others — and has revolutionized virtually every industry it has touched.

Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University and author of the New York Times column Digital Domain, looks at the company's transformation into a massive agent of change in a new book titled Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know.

Stross discussed his book as well as the past, present and future of Google with The media seems to be turning against Google as of late, which raises the question: Is Google evil?

Stross: Google is attracting a lot of criticism. I don't bandy about the word 'evil' in the book but I do cover the history of the inclusion of 'do no evil' in their mission. There are some things it's getting dinged for that I don't feel it needs to, while there are other things that it's not getting enough attention for. The proposed ad deal with Yahoo has drawn a lot of criticism. I recently took a close look at that and decided it would be a deal that would really help Yahoo because ads are priced not by the provider but by a bidding process. This is not something that seems immediately evil.

However, I am greatly concerned with the way Google does not provide full reassurance that the data it is collecting, including very personal data — e-mail, word processing documents, medical records if we use Google Health. All of this information is being collected by a company that has been reluctant to acknowledge how sensitive this material is and how great of a concern privacy protection is for many people. Their all-purpose reassurance is, 'trust us, we know that our business depends upon maintaining the trust of our users so we have every incentive to take good care.' But 'trust us' I don't believe is sufficient. I think there needs to be a lot more transparency and there may be a need for outside supervision — a board of civilians who are given access to Google's security measures and serve as a kind of representative of all of us. There is a problem that Google is acting as a kind of black box, where the data goes in and what happens to it once it's sucked into the Google data centre is something that they do not disclose. They're going to need to change their relationship with their users and become more transparent. They've also been raked over the coals for their censorship in China and possible privacy invasion with Street View.

Stross: Let's take each of those. Google was very transparent in agonizing publicly about what it should do in China. It faced a really tough question and was quite open about how it weighed the pros and cons of giving in to the Chinese government's demands that it censor Google search results, or if it didn't give in, accept that the government would restrict Chinese users from reaching Google servers outside of China. When it decided to accede to the Chinese government's demands, it said very clearly, 'we are going to put on every search results page that has been affected by restrictions that it has been restricted and we believe that ultimately the larger cause of providing reform will be furthered by providing information even if it's not the full set.'

I'm not sure myself what I would have done. It's an old problem about whether you can promote the forces of reform internally or not, but what I like about what Google did is that it made public its internal discussion. I wish they'd do more of that with all these other issues.

Street View is a really interesting problem because what it has done is made fully public what we've all along come to think of as private things. When Google first introduced Street View, critics jumped on it. I don't know if you recall the case of the woman who had a cat that sat in the front window of her apartment and was captured by Street View and she felt that was an invasion of her privacy. Google came back and said, 'but if you were walking down the street, you would have seen that cat.' What we've come to see is that this is the obliteration of privacy by obscurity.

I think what's happened since is we've become more accustomed to the idea. Google has made an important concession that it refused to do initially. It is now willing to blur faces and has developed software to do that automatically. They initially said if you're on the street, it's fair game, but they've backed down and said it's not important for the service that you be able to recognize the faces that happen to be captured. You've had access to many employees and executives of Google. Within the company, is there a real hatred for Microsoft? Are they really trying to take Microsoft down?

Stross: Yes, they are. Microsoft is their number one target. Is it because the people at Google object to the way Microsoft does business?

Stross: I think at it's heart it's just a business rivalry. They have to take Microsoft down in order to grow. The Google co-founders and CEO Eric Schmidt will say it's a war between different philosophies: the proprietary closed model of Microsoft that is desktop centric, or the open-source model of Google that is web-centric. They play off the differences in the technology but even if Microsoft moved fully to a web-centric model and moved Office fully on to the web and stopped selling it as desktop software, they would still have this very deep rivalry. Google is now moving into cellphones and the mobile internet. Where do you see the internet 10 years from now?

Stross: There's no question that Google sees the biggest opportunity for growth is mobile access to the internet. Phones are becoming ever more capable of performing the same work that we use our desktops for. There's a whole new category of phones now, beyond the smartphone, that is designed from the ground up to interact with web services. The iPhone would be the first generation of that and the Android phones are the next version. Screens are going to get, as we've seen, larger and more capable … mobile phones are going to give us truly personal computing. We're going to look back 10 years from now and think of desktop computing as a kind of strange, very limited way of having computing at our fingertips, like a ball and chain. Everything is now sitting up on a cloud rather than on a hard drive under the desk. Where will Google be 10 years from now?

Stross: I can't predict who its chief rival will be, but it's probably a company that has yet to be founded, we know that much. But as long as its advertising business continues to be so lucrative, they can afford to experiment in many different directions and watch developments. It was late to social networking and so far it's response, an industry-wide initiative to try and make social networking members able to move their data across different sites, has not revolutionized that part of the computing world. But this is a company that is on a 300-year mission. It's not thinking 10 years, it's literally thinking 300 years out — 300 years being the time it estimates it will take to digitize all the information in the world. Right now Google says we're only two- or three-per-cent along. In many ways, Google is more ambitious than Microsoft ever was because when Microsoft sold its software to operate in the office or the home, the software was limited to things like writing a Word document or preparing a spreadsheet, so the company's relationship with the customer was episodic. You'd buy the software and you'd install it, maybe you'd have support problems and call them back, but otherwise you'd have no ongoing relationship with the company.

The Google model of computing is very different because you're not purchasing software, you're engaging with this company. The more services that you use, the more dependent you become psychologically — not in the sense that there's a lock in effect like Microsoft does, but you become accustomed to the services so there's a psychological lock there that benefits Google. Services that they do not sell advertisements through still help promote the Google cause because it reinforces the notion in everyone's minds that Google is the place where you seek information. They're going to be well positioned and they have the resources to allow them to, if not anticipate, at least catch up where they lack. The YouTube acquisition is a good example. Google Video was a failure while YouTube exploded. They were able to get out their cheque book for $1.65 billion US and pop YouTube into the shopping cart. One can see where other people, new startups, will come up with interesting ideas that Google did not think of first but Google will have the means to acquire them.