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Is Google Evil? Yes and No

There are certain pieces of trivia that get bandied around so much that they become punch lines. At some point, they're not trivial items anymore; they're quite well known, and talking about them as if they're little-known facts makes the often-pompous speaker sound really stupid to anybody with halfway savvy ears.

A personal favorite of your editor's is the tidbit from the Super Bowl a few years back about how Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers was actually from Detroit and got to play (and win) his last game in his hometown. This one got tossed around so much in the sports press at the time that it has become standard comedy fodder at just about every sports-related gathering your editor attends.

Other little things like this exist outside the sporting realm. Iceland is mostly green while Greenland is mostly ice. There is no word in the English language that rhymes with orange. London Bridge is actually in Arizona. Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln. (Is that one actually true? We have no idea, but that's not the point.) Google's motto is "don't be evil."

That last one is the reason why we're driveling on about this stuff. The press and the punditsphere love to mention Google's mantra as if we didn't already know what it was. Really, geniuses? Google's guiding philosophy is "don't be evil"? Wow, thanks for clueing us in on that one. Did you know that Iceland is mostly green?

Another reason why we hear the "evil" phrase a lot is because the whip-smart (not really) writers who bring it up want to make it sound ironic or, at least, ridiculous. "Hey, Google's motto is 'don't be evil,' but it turns out that Google is evil! How about that for a pithy observation! I'll bet nobody has put that one together before." But we digress a little bit.

We all know, then, what Google intends to be is, well, not "evil." But is Google evil as so many crafty wordsmiths suggest? Two recent events offer some insight into that question. First, there's Google's decision to consolidate user data across all of its services without the user being able to opt out, which is predictably driving people crazy and causing pundits to overreact and scream about privacy issues.

Let's deal with this one first. Here's our ruling: not evil. Somebody actually wrote this in the Washington Post about this story:

"But consumer advocates say the new policy might upset people who never expected their information would be shared across so many different Web sites.

"A user signing up for Gmail, for instance, might never have imagined that the content of his or her messages could affect the experience on seemingly unrelated Web sites such as YouTube."

Seriously? Does that sentence really exist in the wild? Does this mean that there's somebody out there who still doesn't understand how Google works? Google makes its money from advertising: targeted (annoying, but still targeted) advertising. That means that if you send e-mails about Lady Gaga (is she still big among the kids?), you might get an ad in your Gmail inbox touting Lady Gaga tickets or maybe a DVD, if people still buy those. Is anybody really shocked by this? Google has always worked this way.

So, now, Google's going to hook up its properties and share information among them in order to more accurately pinpoint something you might actually want to click on somewhere in a Google-run site. Your Blogger-hosted blog entry raging against Google's privacy policy might lead to an ad for tinfoil hats ending up on your YouTube site. Be vigilant.

Seriously, though, privacy is a myth. It is. There is almost nothing you can do online anymore (or anywhere, really) without somehow signing up first. And while it's true that it's your decision whether to sign up (usually, not always), the practical reality is that you can't use most services at all without at least supplying an e-mail address, usually more. So you're going to divulge something to Big Corporate Brother because that's what we have to do in order to actually use things these days. That's hardly unique to Google. That's life online. It's life, period.

As we've said here before, all kinds of organizations have tons of information about you, anyway, unless you really are hiding out Unabomber-style in a cabin in the woods somewhere, in which case you're not reading this, anyway. Cable companies and Internet providers, for instance, use Social Security numbers for identification. That's the key to the kingdom right there, and yet we give it away because that's what they make us do. Doing anything else is prohibitively difficult, if not impossible. Let's not even get into what credit reporting agencies and credit card providers know about us. Sometimes your editor has trouble answering those "security questions" about his own life. And we're really worried about Google combing our Gmail activity and our YouTube browsing habits? Really?

Here's another point we'll reiterate in this space: Google isn't out to get you (usually -- stay tuned). Google wants you to buy stuff from its advertisers. It is not circling your house with black helicopters or peeking in your windows (although it might peek in your Windows a bit, heh heh). It is not trying to rip you off or take away your liberties or destroy your reputation. It is not working for the government or Interpol or Occupy or the Tea Party. It's trying to make a buck out of your browsing habits. If you don't like that, don't use Google -- but good luck finding somebody else that doesn't do the same thing. It's not evil; it's just business.

This next bit, though, is evil, and it's pretty remarkable. We at RCPU had forgotten -- maybe we never even knew -- that Google paid a $500 million fine to the U.S. government last year in order to escape prosecution for playing a role in illegal online pharmaceutical sales. Anyway, that happened, and we're actually left to wonder a bit how a corporation can just pay its way out of prosecution when a person probably wouldn't legally be able to do that. Aren't corporations people, my friend? Again, we digress. (And your editor is a genuine political moderate who claims no party, in case you were wondering.)

What's remarkable here is the tale, told by the Wall Street Journal, of how a federal prisoner busted Google -- and of just how far Google went in order to work around the law and grab revenue from advertising that seemed dodgy at best and was, in fact, illegal. These were ads for narcotics, steroids and other such pharmaceutical items, and the ads were worded such that it was pretty obvious that they were illegal. But did that stop Google? No. Oh, no. In fact, quoth the WSJ:

"The government's case also contained potentially embarrassing allegations that top Google executives, including co-founder Larry Page, were told about legal problems with the drug ads.

"Mr. Page, now Google's chief executive, knew about the illicit conduct, said Mr. Neronha, the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who led the multiagency federal task force that conducted the sting.

...

"Mr. Neronha declined to detail the evidence, which was presented in secret to a federal grand jury. Other people familiar with the case said internal emails showed Sheryl Sandberg, a former top Google executive who left in 2008 for Facebook Inc., had raised concerns about the ads.

"Prosecutors could have used that evidence to argue Google deliberately turned a blind eye to lawbreaking to protect a profit stream estimated by the government in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Ms. Sandberg declined to comment through a spokesman. Mr. Page also declined to comment."

Yeah, we bet he did decline! Our verdict on this is swift and sure: evil. This is just plain, old greed gone wild and wrong. Read the whole WSJ story; it's long, and we don't really have the inclination to recap it here. Suffice it to say, though, that this isn't just about some oversight or sloppiness on Google's part. No, it was about finding ways to blatantly break the law in order to keep the stream of money flowing.

There's nothing trivial -- and a lot that's evil -- about that. So, while we're not panicking about Google's privacy policy (although the company dealt its trustworthiness a major blow with the drug-ads scandal), we do believe, as always, in keeping an eye as best we can (as everybody should) on corporate activities. Don't be evil, Google. And don't be lazy, users. Just don't be paranoid, either.

What's your take on Google's privacy policy? Leave a comment below or send it to lpender@rcpmag.com

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Posted by Lee Pender on January 26, 2012 at 11:56 AM


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