Monday, August 28, 2006

Don't Be Evil

An interesting, and alarming, piece in today's Guardian concerning Google's use of search information. Somebody at AOL, which uses Google as its search engine, thought it would be a good idea to gather detailed search information and post it on an online database. It was taken down within a week and the person responsible sacked (just like in Monty Python). The worrying thing is that people, both on the side of the watching and that of the watched, do not seem to see the problem with such expansive access to information. Google likes to set itself up as a benign, philanthropic counter-culture company, but it is also the fastest growing company in history, and is likely to overtake Microsoft within the next ten years. There is not any great reason to trust Larry Page and Sergei Brin any more than any other, less sophisticated or culturally inclined capitalist. Page and Brin have an ambition to catalogue and map every form of information and knowledge, hence the prolific cross-pollination of information contained in their services. Of course the real secret of Google's success lies in their selling small ads, and I find it disturbing that, when I use Gmail, the ads in the sidebar are all specifically linked to keywords in my mail text. Maybe it might be time for government intervention to rein the company in before they get too strong.

Not that the present US government is terribly worried about people's right to privacy, what with its fondness for illegal phone-tapping. I have been wondering for quite some time about those ubiquitous ads for the Green Card lottery that flash every time I use a Yahoo account. They are genuine US government placements as far as I know, and a journalist friend of mine claims that they are there for the purpose of information gathering (presumably, to 'help fight against terrorism'). It sounds a bit paranoid but they have started to appear in Metro cars here in Paris and one poster claimed, quite improbably, that 70% of successful applicants have been either born in France or have lived there. There is a story to be written on this.