What is Google?
On one level it’s the world’s most popular search engine, which users bless every time they need information in a hurry. On another it’s a digital business empire that owns Picasa, YouTube, DoubleClick, Gmail, Maps, Earth, Checkout, Calendar, Desktop, Blogger and hundreds of other businesses, services, products or applications that delivered revenues of US$24 billion and net profit of US$6 billion in 2009 – not too shabby when the world was teetering on the edge of chaos.
Impressive as these are, none of these statistics adequately describes Google.
At heart, Google is the world’s biggest data company. Just for starters Google logs all the clicks of all its users of all its services. Add the data entered into forms, cookies that track your movement around the web, server requests and so on, and you have a massive dataset stored on an estimated million or so servers – yes, a million.
Google knows more about you than your partner, more than your employer and more than your government. More than those combined. Google has an immense amount of data-dependent power.
So, do you trust Google?
On the matters of data sharing and security, Google has revealed that: “like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services, or provide information about users of our services and products”. Brazil leads the pack for both data requests and removal requests, followed on the data request league table by the USA and UK. Interestingly, China doesn’t appear in the report, indicating, perhaps, that China doesn’t need to request information because they have other ways of accessing it. According to governments, all data requests are related to criminal investigations.
I am writing this from the comfortable security of the lucky country, Australia, where Google has been accused by the Telecommunications Minister, Steven Conroy, of committing the “single biggest breach of privacy in history”. Google has admitted inadvertently collecting unencrypted data from unsecured domestic Wi-Fi networks as its cars cruised the streets collecting pictures for Street View. Worryingly, this has happened in 30 countries, including Italy, Germany, Spain Canada and France.
Google’s own Code-of-Conduct states: “Always remember that we are asking users to trust us with their personal information. Preserving that trust requires that each of us respect and protect the privacy of that information…. Google is committed to advancing privacy and freedom of expression for our users around the world.”
Criminal proceedings have now commenced in Australia where Google says the data collection was inadvertent. It was a ‘mistake’ and an ‘error’. That remains to be seen – in court.
Meanwhile, Google’s Australian GM, Karim Temsamani, has gone AWOL. Nothing has been heard from him since the story broke. Has he been gagged by the Google hierarchy in California? Has he been advised by his PR team or legal representatives to remain silent?
This could become a reputational disaster for Google. When trust disappears, reputation is not far behind