He who controls the past, controls the future – George Orwell, 1984
The news that Google Street View cars have been snaffling up data from wi-fi access points further confirms the grip that the company has on much of our lives. In fact, it suggests Google is completely out of control.
Google said that it was a completely inadvertent error, after it included code in the Street View kit that detected open wi-fi connections and captured bits of data as the cars trundled along. We have to accept that this is true – but it underlines both the power and the perils of the internet and companies like Google during the early 21st century.
Of course, a few government bodies are already investigating Google for a number of reasons – ranging from Google’s grip on the advertising business to antitrust questions to author copyright.
If Google was a country it would smack of Orwell’s Oceania. In 1984, Orwell paints a picture of a country where everyone is under 24 hour surveillance – Winston Smith’s job is to change old newspaper archives to chime with the truth the Party decides it wants.
German politicians are furious about the breach of wi-fi privacy – the Minister of Consumer Protection, Ilse Aigner, said over the weekend that Google had illegally penetrated private networks. US organisation Consumer Watchdog is pushing for the Justice Department or the FTC to look at the wi-fi case. John Simpson, an advocate for the group, put it this way: “Its computer engineers run amok, push the envelop and gather whatever data they can until their fingers are caught in the cookie jar. Then a Google executive apologises, mouthing bafflegab about how privacy matters to the company.”
Of course Google has also completely changed the news agenda with myriads of online wires now desperate to get a Google News hit, and as no-one knows what the “algorithm” for this is, the fact a particular story, seemingly at random, hits the top headlines causes a heap of sites to chase the particular ambulance irrespective of whether the story is original or not. News wires should be particularly careful about this – Google is effectively deciding the news agenda. And don’t think that because you’re first with the news you’ll be credited with being first – no one will ever know.
Then there’s Google Books. By virtue of its size, Google is attempting to gain a monopolistic position by scanning in anything and everything it can get away with.
There is something marvellous about the ability to connect all sorts of data together – Google Earth is a wonderful tool. Street View is marvellous too, but charting peoples’ front gardens is not necessarily in the best possible taste.
The worrying thing is that we don’t know everything we should do about Google. It may not be evil but it is far from transparent. Any further extension of Google into the computing infrastructure of the 21st century needs to be thoroughly examined and, if necessary, resisted. We clearly don’t know how much Google does know about us already.
And that’s not good.