Google is watching you    


Once it was a plucky upstart, but now the multi-billion-dollar firm is charged with invading our privacy. Lawrence Donegan reports                


Sunday    April     4, 2004

The Observer                


In and around the Googleplex – the name given to the Silicon Valley offices of the internet search engine Google – it’s a source of great corporate pride that the company’s name has become a verb. But if Sergey Brin and Larry Page had yesterday googled the name of the company they founded, they might have been disturbed by the first item retrieved.

‘Google’s Email raises Privacy Fears,’ declared the Indian Express, a headline echoed around this world last week after the company announced it is to offer a free email service called Gmail. A few years ago, when Google was viewed as a radical underground internet experiment, Gmail would have been viewed as evidence of its energy, foresight and public spiritedness. In the new world, with Brin and Page on the cover of  Newsweek and their company on the verge of the biggest public stock offering in recent American corporate history, Gmail has been decried as the final proof that Google has gone over to the ‘dark side’, occupied by Bill Gates and his fellow corporate suits.  

On a technological level, Gmail (which will start as a pilot project) is far superior to similar services currently offered by the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft. The initial analysis was that Google had continued its tradition of besting the competition.  

And then people read the small print. There, lost beneath the folksy explanation of why Google was offering the service – a user had ‘kvetched’ (complained) about spending all her time organising her email account, according to Brin – the company revealed it would be employing technology that would search through the contents of its users’ emails, thereby enabling it to place related adverts alongside those emails. If, for example, a user mentioned DVDs in the text of his or her email, then Google could attach an advert for a company selling cut-price DVDs.  

At the Googleplex this idea was simply a question of commercial imperative: web advertising currently generates $4 billion in revenue each year – a figure which is expected to triple over the next four years. Google, with 25 per cent of that market, is seeking to expand its share in the face of aggressive competition. But for America’s army of privacy protection lobbyists the arrival of Gmail was the worst idea since the Pentagon dreamed up Total Information Awareness – a computer program which would track the activities of America’s 300 million citizens. (It was subsequently abandoned due to the political outrage it caused.)  

I particularly liked this paragraph:

Google, which has enjoyed an almost slavishly admiring press since its launch, is unused to dealing with criticism. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that its response to last week’s onslaught veered from unconvincing (‘The ads would be akin to coupons that shoppers get at grocery stores, based on what they’ve just purchased’) to apologetic (‘We’ll learn. I’m sure our users will tell us frankly when we don’t get it right, and we’ll adjust accordingly’) to simply bemused (‘I am very surprised that there are these kind of questions,’ said Larry Page.)  

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