It’s hard to disagree with Larry Page.
In his recent speech at Google I/O, Page talked about privacy and how it impairs Google. “Why are people so focused on keeping their medical history private”? If only people would share more, then Google could do more.
We look forward to Google taking the lead in this area and opening up their systems to public inspection. Perhaps they could start with the search algorithms. If Google would share more, publishers could do more.
What’s not to like? :)
But perhaps that’s comparing apples with oranges. The two areas may not be directly comparable as the consequences of opening up the algorithm would likely destroy Google’s value. Google’s argument against doing so has been that the results would suffer quality issues.
Google would not win.
If Page's vision sounds somewhat utopian, then perhaps we should consider where Google came from.
In a paper entitled “The Politics Of Search: A Decade Retrospective”, Laura Granker points out that when Google started out, the web was a more utopian place.
A decade ago, the Internet was frequently viewed through a utopian lens, with scholars redicting that this increased ability to share, access, and produce content would reduce barriers to information access...Underlying most of this work is a desire to prevent online information from merely mimicking the power structure of the conglomerates that dominate the media landscape. The search engine, subsequently, is seen as an idealized vehicle that can differentiate the Web from the consolidation that has plagued ownership and content in traditional print and broadcast media
At the time, researchers Introna and Nissenbaum felt that online information was too important to be shaped by market forces alone. They correctly predicted this would lead to a loss of information quality, and a lack of diversity, as information would pander to popular tastes.
They advocated, perhaps somewhat naively in retrospect, public oversight of search engines and algorithm transparency to correct these weaknesses. They argued that doing so would empower site owners and users.
Fast forward to 2013, and there is now more skepticism about such utopian values. Search engines are seen as the gatekeepers of information, yet they remain secretive about how they determine what information we see. Sure, they talk about their editorial process in general terms, but the details of the algorithms remain a closely guarded secret.
In the past decade, we’ve seen a considerable shift in power away from publishers and towards the owners of big data aggregators, like Google. Information publishers are expected to be transparent - so that a crawler can easily gather information, or a social network can be, well, social - and this has has advantaged Google and Facebook. It would be hard to run a search engine or a social network if publishers didn't buy into this utopian vision of transparency.
Yet, Google aren’t quite as transparent with their own operation. If you own a siren server, then you want other people to share and be open. But the same rule doesn’t apply to the siren server owner.
Opening Up Health
Larry is concerned about constraints in healthcare, particularly around access to private data.
“Why are people so focused on keeping their medical history private?” Page thinks it’s because people are worried about their insurance. This wouldn’t happen if there was universal care, he reasons.
I don’t think that’s correct.
People who live in areas where there is universal healthcare, like the UK, Australia and New Zealand, are still very concerned about the privacy of their data. People are concerned that their information might be used against them, not just by insurance companies, but by any company, not to mention government agencies and their employees.
People just don’t like the idea of surveillance, and they especially don’t like the idea of surveillance by advertising companies who operate inscrutable black boxes.
Not that good can’t come from crunching the big data linked to health. Page is correct in saying there is a lot of opportunity to do good by applying technology to the health sector. But first companies like Google need to be a lot more transparent about their own data collection and usage in order to earn trust. What data are they collecting? Why? What is it used for? How long is it kept? Who can access it? What protections are in place? Who is watching the watchers?
I’d argue that in order for people to trust Google to a level Page demands would require a lot more rigor and transparency, including third party audit. There are also considerable issues to overcome, in terms of government legislation, such as privacy acts. Perhaps the most important question is "how does this shift power balances"? No turkey votes for an early Christmas. If your job relies on being a gatekeeper of health information, you're hardly going to hand that responsibility over to Google.
So, it’s not a technology problem. And not just because people afraid of insurance companies. And it’s not because people aren’t on board with the whole Burning-Man-TechnoUtopia vision. It’s to do with trust. People would like to know what they’re giving up, to whom, and what they’re getting in return. And it's about power and money.
Page has answered some of the question, but not nearly enough of it. Something might be good for Google, and it might be good for others, but people want a lot more than just his word on it.
Sean Gallagher writes in ArsTechnica:
The changes Page wants require more than money. They require a change of culture, both political and national. The massively optimistic view that technology can solve all of what ails America—and the accompanying ideas on immigration, patent reform, and privacy—are not going to be so easy to force into the brains of the masses.
The biggest reason is trust. Most people trust the government because it's the government—a 226-year old institution that behaves relatively predictably, remains accountable to its citizens, and is governed by source code (the Constitution) that is hard to change. Google, on the other hand, is a 15-year old institution that is constantly shifting in nature, is accountable to its stockholders, and is governed by source code that is updated daily. You can call your Congressman and watch what happens in Washington on C-SPAN every day. Google is, to most people, a black box that turns searches and personal data into cash”
And it may do so at their expense, not benefit.
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