Google: Is the Invasion of Privacy Necessary for Innovation?
Privacy is defined as the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves, which therefore means that they get to select what information about themselves gets released to the public. Search engines and the internet cause the boundaries of what is considered private information to be blurred. Once private information gets released on the internet, it becomes very difficult to remove this information completely because it may have already been copied or archived. The internet and search engines have made people wonder what is actually considered private information. Since the line is very vague, it makes it very difficult to regulate and each problem that arises is unique because technology is changing at such a fast rate. The common question that seems come out of all of these privacy issues is how can technology companies like Google grow and remain competitive in the long run while remaining ethical and giving users their privacy?
Google’s mission was ‘“to organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable and useful”’ (Google A 3). In 1996, the two co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page began brainstorming their plan to organize the world’s information in their dorm room at Stanford. They wanted to develop a more efficient way for people to search for information. They finally registered their domain Google.com on September 17, 1997. With help from investors, the company began growing and acquired other startup companies, You Tube being one example.
Google finally became a publicly traded company and began trading at $85 per share on August 19, 2004 (Google A 4). By October 31, 2007, shares were trading for $700 each. Not only was Google a search engine and advertising site, but it also provided on-line maps, e-mail, office productivity tools, and video sharing through You Tube, and many other services. In August 2007, Google became the most used search engine on the Web with a 53.6% market share, beating out Yahoo! And Live Search and earned $16 million in revenue (Google A 4).
Google’s corporate motto became “Don’t Be Evil” to encompass all the company values and its corporate history (Google A 5). Don’t Be Evil also meant that the company wanted to “hold themselves to the highest journalistic standards and ethics in order to be objective and unbiased” (Google A 5). Google decided to put its own reputation and brand image in front of short-term profits, unlike many of its competitors. Google believed that it was more important to give its user the most relevant information to their search query, as opposed to giving them the information that advertisers paid the most money for people to see. Google constantly repeated this motto to its employees and focused on keeping their site simple and uncluttered and free of pop ups and negative ads.
Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO, described the ‘“perfect search engine” as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want”’ (“Our Products and Services Company Google”). The goal of all of Google’s technologies is to make finding the information its users need as easy as possible. Google’s 1996 breakthrough technology software was Page Rank, an algorithm that ranked Web pages matching a given search string. This meant that each page was individually ranked and users were able to judge the relevance of the site before even visiting it, increasing user convenience even further.
Google uses the search queries database to its advantage and by looking at what searches are the most popular, it can see what topics are the most intriguing and it can “gauge global consciousness directly” (Halavais 147). This proves how valuable information can be and they also use these search histories to make searching more efficient for individual users. The benefit of this small intrusion of privacy is that searches can be conducted faster and easier and the user tends to get more of the information that they are actually looking for.
In 2006, The U.S. Department of Justice asked search engines to turn over millions of its users search queries. Google resisted the request, but AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, all went along with the government order. In 2006, AOL released over 20 million search queries from 658,000 of its users with the intent of supporting academic research on search engine query analysis (Halavais 145). AOL was heavily criticized and the data was take down from the website three days later. The scandal caused AOL’s Chief Technology Officer and the researcher responsible for the release of the data to resign (Halavais 145). The fact that Google stayed true to its values and users by refusing to give in the government requests for information represented a victory for Google and its users. Giving into the requests could have jeopardized Google’s relationship and trust with its users and would have violated their privacy.
In 2007, Google decided to change its update its privacy settings. Google announced that it would “make search server logs with IP addresses and cookie ID numbers anonymous after 18 months” (Google A 7). This made it difficult to trace any searches back to an individual computer and its user. However, in 2008 Sergey Brin, the head policy maker at Google, found himself at the center of public criticism regarding privacy. There was the general fear that users information was being misused. People feared that if Google continued to gather information about its users and combined that information into a single profile, it could be dangerous. There was also talk of the U.S. government doing the same and using this data for questionable reasons. If Google continues to find out more information about people, “Google will know more information about you than anyone else does, including yourself” (Halavais 149).
Google responded to these public criticisms by reassuring the public and telling them that by the end of 2008 it would improve the anonymity of data after 18 to 24 months. However, critics were still skeptical that the data would actually become anonymous. Google’s Gmail was also under scrutiny because Gmail messages “were automatically scanned by Google ‘to add context-sensitive advertisements to e-mails’” (“Google Information: Google Knowledge: Google Gmail Information Submission Services Company India”). This raised concern among the public that people’s personal emails were being read and could potentially have been used by law-enforcement agencies.
Google’s newest features have also sparked concern especially the launch of Google’s Street View in May 2007. Google worked to resolve these issues by removing imagery that they thought was questionable but many were still worried that Google was crossing the line. There was also drama surrounding the acquisition of Double-Click in 2007. Microsoft, Yahoo! And AT&T urged government regulators to make sure the deal did not violate privacy and antitrust laws (Google A 12). The deal went through and Google claimed that the acquisition would “empower agencies, advertisers, and publishers to collaborate more efficiently and effectively, which will, in turn, provide a better experience for our users (Bogatin 1).
Information privacy is threatened because the United States still has the same old laws for new technology. The challenge that technology creators have to deal with is to “assure that technology is designed in such a way that it incorporates privacy requirements in the software, architecture, infrastructure, and work processes in a way that makes privacy violations unlikely to occur” (Van Den Hoven 1491). This can be difficult when the purpose of the internet and search engines is to discover new information and in some cases disregarding the fact that it is private information.
Technology companies are often put into difficult situations because they are constantly under pressure to be more innovative than their competitors. This has led them to enter into some unknown territory because often times there are no rules or regulations surrounding these new innovations so they have to rely on their management to act ethically. While many technology companies have made unethical decisions regarding their new technology, I think that Google has acted ethically by staying true to its core values even when the government and critics threatened it.
I think Ed Freeman would approve of the Google’s management culture and its emphasis on its stakeholders. Too many companies nowadays have a narrow-minded approach to management decisions and are only concerned with generating the most profit for its shareholders. Stakeholders always need to be accounted for because they represent human values and the greater good of society. It is impossible for a company to operate independently of the stakeholder environment of which they are part of, especially a company like Google who controls the way information is distributed on a global level. Google understands how much of an impact its decisions can have on the world. Freeman says that “the creative force of humans is the engine of capitalism” (Freeman 177). He believes that this modern corporate culture that is full of creativity and the sharing of ideas will ultimately be the catalyst for capitalism.
Out of this new management culture and technologically driven society, a new group called the “hackers” has emerged (Hiamanen 423). This group focuses on creativity and helping one another to develop new ideas. Another feature of the hacker ethic is that they work freely on their own schedule whenever the ideas come to them. Although this work ethic completely contradicts the “Protestant ethic” of the past, these hackers are the types of people who work at Google and their work ethic seems to be the way of the technological future (Hiamanen 425). These workers have a passion for improvement and strive to be as innovative as possible. By hiring workers with this hacker ethic, workers at Google are more focused on being creative and less obsessed with money. This work environment allows for the company to make decisions based on what will be the best for its stakeholders as opposed to what will maximize profit for shareholders.
I think that we need to remain an open society if we plan on moving forward in this technologically driven society. According to Hiamanen, “tight intellectual property laws make it very hard for new innovators to enter the market” (429). These tighter regulations will reinforce the public’s fear of information and will close us off from the possibility of improvements and innovations. This new information age has both positives and negatives but the only way for the public to benefit as a whole is to trust in the systems in place and be careful with the information that we share about ourselves. I think that there has to be some kind of invasion of privacy with innovation, it is the only way for change to happen. Although people are uncomfortable with these rapid changes, I think they need to trust Google’s track record because it proves that they have acted ethically in the past and have remained faithful to its users.
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