Could Google Be the Most Dangerous Company in the World?
Apr 13, 2009 4:00 AM PT
Last week, I wrote about the 3rd Rebirth of Computing. This change will lead to the potential for Google to be vastly more powerful than any company in the history of the world. Given the historical patterns associated with companies that get even a fraction of this power, current trends are frightening.
Therefore, in the interest of getting ahead of a problem that may make the recent ethical issues with the financial industry seem trivial by comparison, I'll focus on Google's increasingly troubling behavior this week and explore whether the company is trending to become the most dangerous company in the world -- a synonym for evil.
I first started wondering about Google when it chose money over its employees' children as a priority. In my mind, putting children at risk is something an evil company would do.
I'll close with my product of the week: a sweet little desktop computer that was born out of conflict and represents one of the best values in the market this year.
Power Corrupts ...
There is a saying: "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Google is massing a lot of power and has a history of doing troubling things with respect to disregarding the needs and safety of others. What triggered this thought is a note I got from an old ex-IBMer whose friend was on the receiving end of a false and very damaging newspaper story that was later retracted. According to him, Google still evidently places this false piece at the top of any search on this guy's name.
Google didn't write the story, but even though the source material has been retracted, Google refuses to pull the reference from its archives, doing the poor guy constant damage. It's not Google's intention to hurt innocent people, but the cost of creating a mechanism to fix this type of problem simply isn't a priority. However, this is simply inaction; the company certainly has the power to destroy anyone's reputation using a similar mechanism and, currently, would be almost impossible to stop.
This suggests that to protect citizens, Google likely should be regulated to make sure it behaves properly to protect the innocent. Or, put another way, just because Google is the leading source on how to commit suicide doesn't mean it should become the leading cause of it. Shouldn't the financial industry serve as an example of what can happen if power, morals and ethics aren't kept in sync?
The End Justifying the Means
You would think a company with the belief that you can make money without doing evil would proactively move to ensure that its tools aren't used for evil purposes. Yet here's what happened back in 2005, in response to a Cnet story questioning how much personal financial information was being indexed by Google: Instead of moving to protect people, Google moved to punish Cnet because it used a Google search on Google's own CEO to make its point. When confronted with a problem, does an evil company correct it or shoot the messenger? I would argue it would choose the latter.
In the most recent instance, people are forming human chains to block Google vehicles from filming streets because of privacy concerns. Although I think that Google may be providing more benefit than risk, it isn't my home that's at stake -- it's theirs. These tools are allegedly being used by thieves to select homes to target. Oh wait -- I can remove the world "allegedly." Someone admitted to using Google Earth for a theft.
While some may think the anti-Google protestors are nuts, think of the last time people formed human chains to block the good deeds a company was doing. Regardless of Google's goal, clearly the people in the chain viewed the company's effort as evil. Google's apparent and complete disregard for their concerns is at least hypocritical, an adjective that has been applied to Google before. Others simply brand the company as immoral.
Given that the U.S. government is supposedly going to Gmail, you might ask whether there's really a reason for concern. Certainly, the government would do its homework, right? There probably is reason for concern -- and the idea of the government doing complete staff work likely ranks right up there with saving Tinkerbell by believing in fairies.
Definition of Evil
Evil is defined as "morally objectionable behavior." It is tied to an act not taken as an average -- as in, on average, Hitler was a really nice guy. Even making people believe they are at increased risk of burglary or identity theft is, in my mind, morally objectionable -- particularly considering the extreme efforts the firm goes through to make sure Google executives' identities and homes remain private. The last time I saw "angry villagers" attacking something was in a "Frankenstein" movie. Blocking artistic works and preventing demonstrations that its tools don't work likely are additional examples of a company behaving badly.
The argument can be made that they are. To quote from the linked piece, "faced with doing the right thing or doing what is in its best interests, Google has almost always chosen expediency." That's the end justifying the means and suggests by inference that Google may already be evil.
Is Google Evil? Its Potential Is Unmatched
Any company that through omission or overt action puts people at risk is evil. It may offset that evil with lots of good works -- and certainly Google does that -- but its potential for evil is unprecedented in private industry. The question is whether government will respond to the threat before it becomes a reality, or wait until it's too late to even see that the threat exists? Google has unprecedented power; we are seeing the firm slowly corrupted by it. For the Obama administration, this may be the test of whether it can do more than deal with problems it has inherited, and prevent problems from happening in the first place.
By most measures, Google is trending to be the most dangerous company in the world. The question is this: Can or should anyone do anything about it? If we don't, it isn't as if we haven't been warned.
The Edmund Burke quote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," works here. Companies that gain the kind of massive power Google has and will collect always end up crossing the line -- not sometimes, but always. Will governments anticipate and prevent a firm from doing significant harm this time, or simply make the same excuses for not acting timely? I can only hope the likely outcome isn't the one that results.
Product of the Week: Acer AspireRivo
It isn't often I see a product from a company other than Apple that simply has that well designed look and feel. In this instance, the Acer AspireRivo combines small size, attractive design, power conservation, performance and very attractive price to create a product that Intel would rather you not buy, even though it uses an Intel Atom processor. This adds a certain extra something, because it kind of turns the AspireRivo into forbidden fruit -- which makes it all the more attractive.
At the center of this product is the best low-power processor that Intel has ever created and a matched graphics system from Nvidia called the "Ion." This is what gives this product the capability of being both very compelling and, at under US$400, very attractively priced. The reason Intel doesn't like this offering is that it doesn't use either Intel graphics or a more expensive Core 2 processor. The fact that it performs well anyway is the icing on the cake.
I'm a big fan of products that save energy and save money while still looking really cool. The PC, which can be mounted on the back of an Acer monitor to make one of the least expensive all-in-one PCs on the market, has six USB ports, HDMI, eSata and VGA ports. In addition, it has a four-in-one flash memory card reader.
I can see products like this redefining the very slow desktop PC space and credibly moving similar machines into the living room to provide our Hulu and YouTube content.
Because this is cool, because it is small, because it is attractive, because I want one, and because it is kind of forbidden, the new Acer AspireRivo is my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.