Escape the Goolag

I used to love Google. Their motto was “Don’t be evil,” which allowed me to believe they were different from most corporations. Although some friends tried to tell me that Google is just another corporation, I didn’t want to believe it. I have recently seen the light.

It all started when I read “Google Is Not What It Seems,” an excerpt from Julian Assange’s book When Google Met Wikileaks.

Google is “different”. Google is “visionary”. Google is “the future”. Google is “more than just a company”. Google “gives back to the community”. Google is “a force for good”… Nobody wants to acknowledge that Google has grown big and bad. But it has. Schmidt’s tenure as CEO saw Google integrate with the shadiest of US power structures as it expanded into a geographically invasive megacorporation.

The deeper I dug, the more I realized that if Google was ever the non-evil corporation they claimed to be, that time is long gone. “Don’t be evil” is no longer their motto. It now appears to be, “Define evil…”

My problems with Google fall into five main categories:

  • Relationship with government
  • Monopolization
  • Unethical business practices
  • Censorship
  • Privacy

Relationship with government

Google’s close relationship with the intelligence community and State Department is detailed in Assange’s article.

The meeting of When Google Met Wikileaks fame was initiated by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who allegedly wanted to interview Assange for a book he was writing. But at the meeting, Schmidt was accompanied by Lisa Shields, Jared Cohen, and Scott Malcolmson. “At this point, the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment” but Assange didn’t know that. He was aware that Shields was the vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “a US foreign-policy think tank with close ties to the State Department,” but because she was introduced as Schmidt’s significant other, he thought nothing of it.

Assange later learned that Cohen and Malcolmson had deep ties with the State Department.

Cohen worked at the State Department before becoming the director of Google Ideas. He and Schmidt “co-wrote a policy piece for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, praising the reformative potential of Silicon Valley technologies as an instrument of US foreign policy.” Apparently their pitch was successful: It seems that Cohen now does for Google what he once did for State. Assange jokes that he could be called Google’s “director of regime change,” as his “directorate appear[s] to cross over from public relations and ‘corporate responsibility’ work into active corporate intervention in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for states.”

Scott Malcolmson was ostensibly present at the meeting because he was the book’s editor. But three months later he entered the State Department as speechwriter and advisor to Susan Rice. He’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

When Assange realized that the meeting had been more with the State Department than with Google, his initial reaction was “to think of Schmidt as a brilliant but politically hapless Californian tech billionaire who had been exploited by the very US foreign-policy types he had collected to act as translators between himself and official Washington.” He would learn that Schmidt is perhaps more politician than techie.

There was nothing politically hapless about Eric Schmidt. I had been too eager to see a politically unambitious Silicon Valley engineer, a relic of the good old days of computer science graduate culture on the West Coast. But that is not the sort of person who attends the Bilderberg conference four years running, who pays regular visits to the White House, or who delivers “fireside chats” at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Schmidt’s emergence as Google’s “foreign minister”—making pomp and ceremony state visits across geopolitical fault lines—had not come out of nowhere; it had been presaged by years of assimilation within US establishment networks of reputation and influence.

Assange summarizes Google’s problematic relationship with the government as follows:

By all appearances, Google’s bosses genuinely believe in the civilizing power of enlightened multinational corporations, and they see this mission as continuous with the shaping of the world according to the better judgment of the “benevolent superpower.” They will tell you that open-mindedness is a virtue, but all perspectives that challenge the exceptionalist drive at the heart of American foreign policy will remain invisible to them. This is the impenetrable banality of “don’t be evil.” They believe that they are doing good. And that is a problem.

Monopolization

Is Google a monopoly? Tech billionaire Peter Thiel certainly thinks so. He writes that Google’s market share of search is 67%. Since his book was published, that figure has increased to 81%.

Strangely, though, Thiel characterizes that as a good thing. He says that Google’s status as a monopoly means that it isn’t “so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future.” This freedom from “the daily brute struggle for survival” allows Google to offer its employees “utopian” benefits.

Ok, that’s great for Google employees, but what about the rest of us? Thiel argues that monopolies are good for society because they “drive progress.” That’s ludicrous. In the capitalist worldview, it’s competition that drives progress, and monopolization is the antithesis of competition.

Unethical business practices

Google’s monopolization of search gives it the power to bend other companies to its will. For example, they threatened Forbes with lower search rankings if the latter refused to implement the +1 button on their articles. And Google has for years been under investigation by the European Commission for abusing its power to give some of its own services (e.g. shopping, maps, and flight information) an unfair advantage. The commission recently fined Google a record $2.7 billion.

Censorship

Google can also use its power to “quash ideas it doesn’t like,” as Forbes journalist Kashmir Hill put it. When she published an article exposing Google’s practice of threatening companies that refused to implement the +1 button, she was forced to remove the piece. She later found that it had been removed from the cache.

Perhaps the most infamous victim of Google “censorship” is James Damore, the software engineer who was fired for penning a memo in which he criticized the company for perpetuating an “ideological echo chamber.”

Google owns YouTube, and the company has recently come under fire for teaming up with the Anti-Defamation League to censor content it deems offensive.

Privacy

Assange writes that Google’s “penchant for luring people into its services trap with gigabytes of ‘free storage’ produces the perception that Google is giving it away for free, acting directly contrary to the corporate profit motive. Google is perceived as an essentially philanthropic enterprise—a magical engine presided over by otherworldly visionaries—for creating a utopian future.” But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Google is a corporation. It’s not providing you with gigabytes of free storage out of benevolence. When you use these services, you are the product. Google collects data on you and sells it to advertisers.

When it comes to privacy, Google is hypocritical. It seems to have little concern for individual citizens who want their information removed from search results. Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And yet, Schmidt is extremely careful to hide the details of his own private life.

Apple created a stir when they announced that the latest version of their browser, Safari, would automatically block the tracking technique used to track users’ activity across websites. The advertising industry pitched a fit. They wrote an open letter to Apple, begging them not to do it. They said it would undermine “the business model of the Internet.” This is an odd thing to say because the Internet isn’t a company and doesn’t have a business model. The only business model Apple is hurting is that of companies like Google, who make money by infringing upon the privacy of individuals. Excuse me if I don’t feel sorry for them.

Escape the Goolag

What can we, as individuals, do to challenge a leviathan like Google? We can wean ourselves from Google’s teats, which are more numerous than the utters of a mutant cow. Listing them all is beyond the scope of this article, but following are the three Google services most likely to be part of your daily life:

  • Google search
  • Google Chrome
  • Gmail

Instead of Google search, use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t profit from your searches or collect data about you. Instead of Chrome, use an open-source alternative such as Firefox, which can be augmented with plugins to protect your privacy. (Or, if you’re really serious about privacy, use Tor.) Instead of Gmail, use a privacy oriented service like Proton Mail, which automatically encrypts all of your messages.

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