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Big Google is watching you - by John Lanchester

Written by Subject: Internet

Epic 2014 - The Future of the Internet, Reported from the year 2014

The Sunday Times January 29, 2006

Big Google is watching you

Every web move you make is recorded for ever. And the Chinese government for one is getting wise to the potential, says John Lanchester

‘Don’t be evil.” That’s the motto of Google, which was founded in 1997 and is now worth $129 billion (£72 billion), making it the fastest growing company in the history of the world. The mixture of unprecedented financial growth and squeaky-clean ethics has made Google the only company in the world which is perceived as simultaneously cool, successful and on the side of the good guys.

Or at least that was the case until last week, when Google announced that it was switching its search facilities in China to servers based inside the country, and that as part of that process it would be co- operating with Chinese government censorship of the internet.

Previously, Chinese users of Google had to access servers in America; the search results were then passed through Chinese government internet servers — “the great Firewall of China”— before getting back to the user; the Chinese government employs 30,000 policemen who work full-time monitoring the internet.

Until now, Chinese net users who were blocked from accessing a site knew that the information was there and was being kept from them by their own government. From now on it is Google which will be keeping data from them, in direct contradiction of its own declared mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

The reaction to Google’s move has been highly critical. The watchdog organisation Reporters Without Borders called it “a black day for freedom of expression in China”, adding that “Google’s statements about respecting online privacy are the height of hypocrisy in view of its strategy in China”. It seemed that the company’s real motto was something more along the lines of “don’t be evil unless the Chinese government asks you to and there’s serious money in it”.

Long-term Googlewatchers were not surprised: Google has been collaborating with Chinese censorship of its news service since September 2004. Google is also a part-owner of the biggest Chinese search engine, Baidu, which is slavishly compliant with government censorship. There was no possibility that Google was ever going to pass up the chance of making money in the world’s biggest potential market.

However, the news hit particularly hard because the company, having had something of a free ride in the mainstream media, had only just come under sharply increased scrutiny. Just the week before, the news had broken that Google was fighting a subpoena brought by the US Department of Justice.

The DoJ was demanding a list of every website address available on Google and every search term entered for June and July 2005 — a request later narrowed to a random list of 1m websites and all the URLs (uniform resource locators, the global addresses of documents and other resources on the web) available in a given week.

The government was looking to assess the prevalence on the internet of what it calls HTM — harmful to minor — not child pornography, but pornography that children can accidentally access. It turned out that AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! had all already complied with similar requests. To many this seemed the long predicted privacy apocalypse. It isn’t, not quite, since the subpoena specifically omits information that would identify who is doing the searching. But it is an incredibly worrying sign, not least because it shows the way governments might come to use search engines as a form of privatised surveillance.

Google has an extraordinary amount of information about its users. It logs all the searches made on it and stores this information indefinitely. Because every computer has a unique IP (internet protocol) address, every visit to every website can be traced back to the computer making it — a fact which is well known in geek circles but remarkably under-publicised outside them. (Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist, was given 10 years in jail last April for “leaking state secrets” after Yahoo! in Hong Kong handed over information linking his IP address and his e-mail to the Chinese authorities.) Users of Google’s Gmail service, who are already having their e-mails scanned to place targeted ads, have given the company their identity, a full record of all their searches and copies of all their e-mails, stored indefinitely. Users of Google’s Toolbar are inadvertently giving the company a list of not just all their searches but also of every single website they visit. And, as the lawsuit makes clear, all this information is potentially vulnerable to subpoena.

So good on Google for fighting the subpoena even if — as geeks suspect — it did so to protect trade secrets. The news about the subpoena caused Google’s share price to drop 8.5% in one day. The company is now worth $20 billion less than it was a month ago.

This is the stock market’s way of saying that the more people think about their privacy, the worse it is for Google. Add the China story to the American subpoena and it seems that Google has travelled a long way from the sunlit super-optimistic Californian campus where it began.

Google is the only multi-billion-dollar company in the world that is also a spelling mistake. Back in 1997 its co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were graduate computer science students at Stanford. They were working on an insanely cool new search engine, they wanted to incorporate it as a company and they needed to find a name. A fellow student suggested they use the name given to what is the largest number: google. They looked up the name on the internet, found that it wasn’t taken and registered their brand-new brand, The next morning they found that the reason why the name hadn’t been taken was because it should be spelt googol — and that had, of course, been bagged.

Lesser men might have considered that a bad omen, but Page and Brin are not bad omen kind of guys. The Wallace and Gromit of the information age, they are now worth more than $10 billion each.

Google does not search the internet. If it did, the internet would grind to a halt under the strain of all the searching taking place, because Google alone (not to mention the competition) makes upwards of 100m searches every day. Instead the program searches a copy of the internet downloaded onto its own computers. A full circuit of all the web pages in the world takes roughly a month, which is why the information on Google is often a few days old.

Having copied the internet, it then indexes it by charting every word on a web page, where it stands in relation to other words, whether or not a word is listed in a title, whether it is listed in a special typeface, how frequently it is listed on the page and so on. There are more than 100 of these criteria and Google gives a numeric weight to every one of them. When a query arrives — which it does at the rate of many times every second — Google searches the index and lists pages in order of relevance, usually within half a second or so.

Even if you didn’t know a thing about computers, you could tell this involves a truly scary amount of computational power. When the program was conceived, Page thought he would be able to download an entire copy of the internet to his own PC. That turned out not to be the case: Page and Brin ended up having to scrounge, cadge, rustle up and “borrow” every scrap of computational power they could find at Stanford to gather the necessary data.

What they learnt in the process became one of their great strengths. Google does not run on huge expensive mainframe computers, but on a large number of bog-standard over-the-counter PCs. When one breaks, it is replaced. Without their experience in student bodging, the founders of Google would never have learnt how to put together a computer cluster that combined such replaceable simplicity with such computational muscle.

Traffic to the site grew at great speed, all without a cent spent on marketing. Google managed to build a huge business through small ads. Next time you do a search on Google, have a look at the “sponsored links” on the right of the results. These are paid advertisements. The ads have been bid for by people who bid for specific words, or combinations of words: 75 cents for “digital camera”, but $1.08 for “digital cameras” (because people who click on the plural are more likely to buy).

Google’s ads are so effective at generating income because they tap directly into the intentions of people looking for things. An ad in any normal medium is, to a degree, a form of broadcasting: it will appear in front of many people who have no interest. The Google ads appear only in front of people already looking for the thing they are advertising; this is something nobody foresaw about the internet, that its “killer app” (killer application) was the ability to find services and information. The received wisdom in the business was that a search was a “commodity”, something it was simple to buy from the cheapest provider. In disproving that, Google showed that it was wired straight into the global id.

Is Google a good thing? The geek in me wants to say yes. It has certainly made finding information incomparably easier. Some of the information is even true . . . Actually, that’s not fair, but a lot of what is on the net is false and the Google-derived mistake is something you now notice. One example occurred on the death of Hunter S Thompson when several newspapers shared with us President Richard Nixon’s opinion that “Hunter S Thompson represented the dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”. Except Nixon didn’t say that about Thompson; Thompson said it about Nixon. But a site giving the line the wrong way round was the first one up on Google.

Despite such glitches, Google is invaluable. I’ve used it on a more or less daily basis for the past five years. Google Scholar, which searches academic papers, is very useful. The powerful calculator feature will do advanced maths as well as highly practical things such as converting square feet into metres. Google News terrifies conventional news organisations. Google Earth isn’t particularly useful but it is brutally cool: you begin with a satellite view and gradually descend to Earth, homing in with a level of detail which can give you a view of your own house (or a secret military installation). Froogle, the shopping search service, has a feature which chills the blood of conventional retailers: when you see something you want to buy, you can text its name to 64664 and Froogle will text back the best price it can find.

Technologically, Google is an amazing thing. As for whether it is a good thing, that depends on what happens next. A strength of the firm — its rootedness in graduate student nerd culture — is also a weakness in the form of a certain arrogance. Google Book Search, its plan to scan all the world’s books, sounds ambitious, to put it mildly, but Google has the resources and determination to do it. It is digitising millions of books and is already providing access to out-of-copyright volumes. It also started digitising copyrighted books in the United States until it was stopped by a lawsuit from the American Association of Publishers.

The plan is not simply to give the books away: although the whole book will be scanned and stored, only specific fragments of text will be displayed. It will be the best shop window for obscure texts. Besides, isn’t the company policy “Don’t be evil”? But to publishers there is something outrageously hypocritical about the contrast between Google’s ferocious protection of its own intellectual property rights and its contempt for everyone else’s. What ’s to stop Google giving free online access to the books once they are scanned? At the moment Google says it has no intention of providing access to this content; but why should anybody believe it? This is why Google’s activities in China have the potential to be such a disaster for the company. So far everyone who has invested in Google has made out like the proverbial bandit; but one day the share price will drop and people who have bought shares will find they have lost money. It is then that Google’s leaders will come under pressure to find some uses for that goldmine of personal data.

As for privacy in relation to governments, the company’s existing privacy policy says that “we may share information” if “we conclude that we are required by law or have a good faith belief that access, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to protect the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public”. You don’t have to be Diogenes the Cynic to think that this gives Google the latitude to do pretty much whatever it wants.

Google is cool, but Google has the potential to destroy the publishing industry, the newspaper business, high street retailing and our privacy. Not that it will necessarily do any of these things, but for the first time, considered soberly, they are technologically possible. The company is rich and determined and is not going away any time soon. It knows what it is doing technologically; socially, though, it can’t possibly know and I don’t think anyone else can either.

John Lanchester is the author of The Debt to Pleasure. This is an updated version of an article that appears in the London Review of Books (