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.

Well, quite.

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?

Google goes someway towards providing transparency with their privacy policy. A lesser known facility, called Data Liberation allows you to move data out of Google, if you wish.

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.

Published: May 29, 2013 by A Reader in google


May 29, 2013 - 5:30pm

The leaders of Google are always quick to position themselves as the well-meaning, well-intentioned white knights of modern society. If Google want something, they make sure they ask for it in such a way as to make them look like they're doing us all a favour by asking for it. When Google are caught being less-than-ethical (which is a daily occurrence), they revert to their spin-mastering to make them look all innocent. From stealing Wi-Fi data to playing the tax system for all its worth (and I know people tirelessly defend Google on this, but for a "do no evil" company they seem no less evil than any other big corp) to....well Aaron's been over Google's misdemeanours a few times on this blog before. We know them, and we also know how ruthless Google are.

Google remind me - in a way - of Scientology. On the surface, they come across as reasonable, mild-mannered, sensible people saying sensible things. And then you keep hearing really bad things about them. No...can't be true, these are NICE guys. But the rumours persist. Then you hear of court cases, and the GOOD GUYS losing these court cases. Then you start to scrutinise the institution you once thought was good. And you realise they're experts at spinning a version of reality to you, a reality that is very palatable and agreeable. Google ARE a kind of modern-day cult in how obsessive they are at being seen as the nice guys, and yet you keep hearing those stories....

May 30, 2013 - 1:03pm

Google is just getting creepier and creepier. Ok yeah it is run by stock price driven Sociopaths, we all get that. but things like the new password pill and Electronic tattoos coupled with more knowledge about individuals than any security service could possibly hope to posses and we have the creepiest company in human history.

and Larry's performance the other day just made it look even worse. I don't know where this is all going but I get a feeling it is not going to end up good.

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