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Google may not be evil, but it's also not trustworthy

Google still trades comfortably on its image as a benevolent, touchy-feely company, but it has become impossible to ignore its lengthening string of privacy and regulatory missteps.

May 13, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • A Google employee pedals the company's Street View Tricycle in a park near Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in March 2011. The tricycle allows Google to reach beyond public streets onto hiking trails, amusement parks, historical landmarks, parks and gardens.
A Google employee pedals the company's Street View Tricycle in a park… (Paul Sakuma, Associated…)

You've heard all about how banks present a danger to the financial system once they become "too big to fail" (I'm looking at you, JPMorgan Chase). Here's the equivalent question about a much different company: Has Google become too big to trust?

To ask the question is to answer it, but in case that's not explicit enough, the answer plainly is yes.

It's become impossible to ignore Google's lengthening string of privacy and regulatory missteps. The company has been found by the Federal Communications Commission to have collected and kept emails and Web browsing histories, even passwords, of individuals whose Wi-Fi signals were intercepted by vehicles photographing street scenes for its Street View program. Google stands accused of lying about the practice and resisting a government investigation of the case.

The Mountain View, Calif., company appears to have deliberately bypassed privacy settings on the Safari browser loaded on every Apple iPad and iPhone, allowing it to secretly track the online behavior of the devices' users. That could pose an especially big problem for Google, because in doing so it may have breached a settlement it had reached in a previous federal complaint by agreeing not to misrepresent its privacy practices in the future.

As if that wasn't alarming enough, Google declared March 1 that it would aggregate the information it gleaned from each user's activity on its search, mail, document and other services. The company's argument was that this would allow it to personalize all those services for each user, but it also meant that Google would have more power to exploit users' personal data than it had ever claimed before.

Veteran Google watchers aren't surprised at what looks to them like the natural trend line of a company becoming too big and arrogant for its own, or its customers', good.

"Google looks at laws and getting permission as impediments to making the world a better place," Scott Cleland, an assiduous Google critic at the business consultancy Precursor, told me. Cleland labels the company's attitude "Goobris."

None of this means that you shouldn't do business with Google or utilize its programs. In many respects Google is an admirable company, and in some respects well ahead of its tech sector peers.

I find its Chrome Web browser to be the best on the market. Google's Android operating system for mobile devices has become a successful counterweight to Apple's iOS-driven iPhone, for which anyone wary of creeping monopolization should be grateful. The company hosts a program of lectures for its employees by authors and public figures, and posts the events online. (I've participated.) And some of its search capabilities are stunning — just try to find patents from the U.S. patent office as easily as you can find them through Google's patent search.

In defending its customers against government encroachment on user privacy, Google ranks tops among corporations tracked by the Electronic Freedom Foundation's "Who Has Your Back?" campaign, by a safe margin. "They'll stand up to the government when it comes looking for information," EFF General Counsel Cindy Cohn explained.

Still, that doesn't mean you should view Google as a public service institution.

Google still trades comfortably on its image as a benevolent, touchy-feely company interested more in the pursuit of good works than the worship of mammon. Google Chief Executive Larry Page put it this way in 2011: "Our ultimate ambition is to transform the overall Google experience, making it beautifully simple, almost automagical, because we understand what you want and can deliver it instantly."

Then there's its widely publicized corporate mantra, "Don't Be Evil." Leaving aside the phrase's inherent condescension — just what other corporations do Google co-founders Page and Sergey Brin consider "evil"? — Cleland argues that as a moral standard, it's not nearly as high-minded as it seems at first blush. After all, a company can engage in a lot of activity that's harmful, craven, irresponsible, meretricious, reprehensible or even illegal without rising to the level of "evil."

The limits to Goobris have been getting clearer for some time. Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission said it had hired an ace prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson, to spearhead an antitrust case against the company — a sign that the feds are getting very serious.

As a sign that the reality of Google's expansive reach is beginning to reach the average consumer, consider the furor created by the terms of service applicable to Google Drive, a recently launched service based in the computing "cloud" that enables users to transfer or sync files among their various computers and mobile devices and those of their colleagues.

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