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Not All Google Critics Are Bigots

September 5th, 2009 · 14 Comments · General

Jeff Jarvis wrote a post today entitled “Google bigotry“, in which he asserts that:

Google has an image problem – not a PR problem (that is, not with the public) but a press problem (with whining old media people).

He then goes on to launch a tirade against a Le Monde journalist whose offense was to say she was writing “an article about Google facing a rising tide of discontent concerning privacy and monopoly.” He proceeds to stereotype the French as having “national insanity” of Google bigotry. I’ll leave analysis of irony as an exercise to the reader.

But the true irony is that Jarvis has a point. While I haven’t done a rigorous analysis, my impression is that there has been a sensationalist press overreaction against Google, singling out Google for behavior for which all other companies get a pass. As even one of the most vocal Google critics admits, “Google’s [privacy] policies are essentially no different than the policies of Microsoft, Yahoo, Alexa and Amazon.” Moreover, some of the newspapers criticizing Google as parasitic are the same ones who once turned–and still turn–to Google with open arms as a source of traffic–when they could easily cut Google off by configuring robots.txt. Granted, the newspapers are now locked into a prisoner’s dilemma, but they should at least take some responsibility for putting themselves in that position.

That said, there are lots of legitimate reasons to criticize Google, specifically concerning privacy and monopoly. While Google may not have engaged in any illegal or unethical practices to get there, it now holds a position as the primary gatekeeper to the internet for a substantial majority of Americans, as well as much of the western world. On the content creation side, site owners don’t ask “What Would Google Do?“–rather they ask how Google will index their sites. Meanwhile, on the consumption side, the broadening scope of Google’s role in ordinary people’s lives is legitimate cause for concern about privacy. It’s not insane or bigoted to raise these issues.

Moreover, Google claims to hold itself to a higher standard than other companies, so it’s not that surprising that people actually do hold them to it and criticize it when it flls short. Still, that’s no excuse for exaggeration or outright hallucination.

As I commented on Jarvis’s blog, I don’t think he’s the most credible judge of Google’s critics. He responded in kind. Touché. I accept that exchanging personal attacks doesn’t advance the argument. Perhaps more detached voices can chime in.

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Josh Young // Sep 5, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Who in this debate–really good and deep in it–doesn’t have some sort of bias his or her opponents can latch onto crying foul? It all seems relatively unproductive to me.

    But I think a serious part of the gap between you and Jarvis is that your audiences are two separate groups. He’s preaching to stragglers, largely, pulling them up the curve, while you’re trying to set the curve. I’m not saying that to flatter you or denigrate Jarvis’s work. They’re both important, and you two could probably fairly switch roles.

    I just think it’s a matter of clarity of message for Jarvis. It would be very difficult to maintain the rhetorical thrust of his message if it were laden with somewhat speculative caveats. His audience isn’t ready to hear about the really complex notion that publishers got caught in a something like a prisoner’s dilemma.

    To my knowledge, no one’s really explained how that might actually have occurred or how it could have been avoided. It’s not at all clear to me, for example, that it’s fair to rest some blame on participants in a prisoner’s dilemma for failing to wrest themselves out of it. It’s not a dilemma for nothing! And the fact that it’s a multi-player fiasco (rather than a tidy two-player game) doesn’t add to the analytical power of the argument.

    Jarvis has got enough on his plate, I suppose. But note well that hasn’t stopped me from critiquing the importance to the news of what he calls the “link economy.” I suspect that hyperlinks that connect web pages are *not* the best way to structure the news. For instance, tweets may contain (shortened) hyperlinks, and each tweet may have its own URL. But the graph that’s doing the real work is the social graph–the follows between accounts that represent mostly people clamoring for one another’s scarce attention. That social graph and its attention economy–quite away from twitter itself–seem way more important than Jarvis’s link economy.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 5, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Josh, thanks for the thoughtful response. My direct argument with Jarvis is going on at his blog (where he says I’m “arguing with a shadow”), but hopefully he’s at least reading your commentary.

    Your point about retroactively allocating blame to participants in a prisoner’s dilemma is an interesting one that I’ll need to ponder. To clarify, I don’t blame the newspapers for their inability to get out now; rather I blame them for volunteering themselves into it by being too eager to suck traffic from Google’s teat. Do you think even that is unfair?

    On your last point, I completely agree–we’re certainly undergoing a change where social networks and social media are subsuming links as the engine of the online attention economy. I don’t know Jarvis’s take on that–I would expect that by now he’d have adapted his “link economy” thesis to keep up with the shifting technology. Indeed, posts like this one suggest to me that he sees Twitter as a sort of Google 2.0.

  • 3 CJ // Sep 7, 2009 at 8:09 am

    I think that Google relies on the trust of the people. The day we all lose trust is the day the company collapses.

    There is a real problem with providing better results using personalisation and privacy. I don’t think that there is such a thing on the internet to be honest. It’s an illusion. The younger generation doesn’t seem as concerned by it as our generation and older ones. If you want personalised results then you have to feed personal information into the box.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

    The point about trust is well taken. Google certainly collects data that it could abuse. And, while I’d feel more comfortable if it were more transparent as a company, I also trust Google to not be abusive, perhaps because I’ve met enough employees to have a positive feeling about the company culture and ethics. Irrational, perhaps, but it works for me.

    As for personalization, I think there’s a lot more than could be done client-side. Let use as users build our own profiles that we can inspect and even modify, and let those be what transparently personalize the search experience. Granted, some things requires aggregation on the server side, but why not emphasize the client side first? I know startups have struggled in this space, but Google could certainly give it a boost by exposing an API that supports client-directed personalization.

  • 5 Gene Golovchinsky // Sep 8, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I think trust in a large corporation’s self-imposed policies is not a good policy. Nothing against Google, but they can say lots of things about privacy etc., but if it turns out that it’s in their interest tomorrow to use some piece of information for some reason, they will do so. Best personal privacy policy is not to give anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want them to use against you. Sounds a bit paranoid, and is probably unnecessary for most data for most people, but holds in principle, I think.

    This applies to any corporation or Gov’t organization. Data corrupts, and federated data corrupts absolutely.

  • 6 jeremy // Sep 8, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    if it turns out that it’s in their interest tomorrow to use some piece of information for some reason, they will do so.

    Especially when they already have a long history of coming out quite strongly against things in the past, and then turning around and doing exactly the opposite of what their self-imposed position used to be. E.g. copyright, “chat”, “we’re not a media company”, banner advertising, self-advertising, etc.

    It’s not confidence-inspiring.

  • 7 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Indeed, I’m a fan of “trust, but verify”. And Jeremy’s point about Google’s evolving mission is well taken. I think it’s uncontroversial that everyone would be more comfortable with Google not being in a position to do anything abusive, regardless of whether it has or will every have a propensity to do so.

    Still, as CJ points out, Google does provide value in exchange for trust. I certainly support users’ right to make that exchange. Still, I think everyone would win from investment in approaches that push more control–and specifically the sort of control associated with personalization–from the server-side black box to the user.

  • 8 CJ // Sep 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    A good paper to read on this is:

    “The Googleplex” by Piotr Cofta

  • 9 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 8, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Interesting. Just saw your post about it and read the paper from the ACM Digital Library (couldn’t find a link to it on the open web). But much as I take Jarvis to task when he preaches about the “idea of Google”, I’m wary of Cofta’s quasi-dystopian “idea of the Googleplex” that “is not a speculation when it comes to facts related to Google”. It feels a lot like the fictional (and already dated) “Googlezon” depicted in EPIC 2014. I’d rather stick to praising and criticizing the real Google, rather than speculating on what it might become.

  • 10 CJ // Sep 8, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    You’re right. The way I see it, at the end of the day they’re a big corporate like many others and they do what they need to to stay afloat and blossom.

  • 11 jeremy // Sep 9, 2009 at 11:22 am

    And Jeremy’s point about Google’s evolving mission is well taken.

    Were it just a matter of an evolving mission, I would be fine with that. However, we’re talking about things which they at one point publicly stated were core to the identity of Google. Banner advertising, for example. That the former are relevance-based and the latter are not.

    Google’s fundamental principle as a company is relevance. You don’t just “evolve” from the relevance of text ads to the non-relevance of banner ads. You have to consciously and explicitly turn your back , 180-degrees, on your prior stance.

    That is not evolution.

    Perhaps I am making a slippery-slope logical fallacy, but if they are capable of doing a 180 on banner ads, what else will they do a 180 on? And when?

  • 12 jeremy // Sep 9, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Banner advertising, for example. That the former are relevance-based and the latter are not.

    Sorry, let me restate: “Text advertising vs. banner advertising, for example. The former is relevance-based and the latter is not.”

  • 13 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 9, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I agree that their stances are subject to change. But I’d be shocked if they did a 180 on what strike me as core values, e.g., selling user data to marketers in a way that toes the line of their legal and contractual obligations. I do think they take their “don’t be evil” motto to heart, even if I don’t always agree with their decisions.

    But I think the broader point is that, while it’s nice to trust a company, it’s even better not to have to depend on the sanctity of that trust. As Gene said, data corrupts, and federated data corrupts absolutely.

  • 14 jeremy // Sep 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I agree that their stances are subject to change. But I’d be shocked if they did a 180 on what strike me as core values

    I didn’t say that they did a 180 on every core value. I said they did a 180 on a core value.

    But don’t take my word at what strikes me personally as one of their core values. Take Google’s word. Here is the Internet Archive’s version of their “Ten Things” from almost exactly 5 years ago (Sept 10, 2004). Pre-IPO:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20040910013454/http://www.google.com/corporate/tenthings.html

    Under the “[We] can make money without doing evil” header, let me quote:

    Google has also proven that advertising can be effective without being flashy. Google does not accept pop-up advertising or rich media ads. Text ads that are properly keyword-targeted draw much higher clickthrough rates than flashing banner ads appearing randomly.

    This was a core value on what it means to make money without being evil. It has undeniably changed. Now, they do accept rich media ads. And they do place those rich media ads randomly on web pages, i.e. banner advertising.

    I don’t know how it can be any more clear than that.

    I agree with your broader point, that it’s nice to not have to depend on the sanctity of that trust. All I’m saying is that there are instances where that sanctity has already been broken. Which underscores the broader point even more.

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