By TARUN GANGWANI
Evil is a pretty tough word to wrap your mind around. The term has been thrown around in the world’s most ancient texts, like the Bible. God : Devil :: Good : Evil. Classic. If something is good, it has some sort of affinity towards God. If it is evil, then it has an affinity towards the devil. If you aren’t religious though, you may substitute the word evil with “bad”, but the connotation between the two words is far different. Something that is bad is something unwanted, or undesirable. We don’t like bad. But something that is evil is not only bad, but also detestable. If you did a bad thing as a kid, you probably got a slap on the wrist. If you did an evil thing, you became infamous for your negativity, and you were made an outcast.
Google’s manifesto is ‘Don’t be evil,’ so how have they done? Consider not-evil (or the opposite of evil). Evil sits in the corner of a large opinion box consisting of good, okay, so-so, bad, terrible, nasty, etc. Following this reasoning, odds are that Google is not-evil.
In the past few years, Google has made some changes to their platform that have had a swirl of opinions attached to them, but do these changes sum to an evil judgment? Should Google be out-casted, called out, or closely investigated? Before we answer that question, a small primer on search would be useful:
Information and Accessibility
Google’s mission is simple: To make the world’s information organized and accessible to everyone. There are two aspects to this mission to focus on: information and accessibility. The Internet contributes to the vagueness of these terms. Information used to exist on a piece of paper, passed on from one person to another in confidence. It was a deliberate act. That information, in turn, was only accessible to those who possessed it. Possession, in turn, was quite obvious to determine: either they had the piece of paper on their person, or they did not. We lived in a black and white world, much like the color of the information we would transmit. When Google launched in the early 2000s, search became the key to making information accessible. If people could find the information, they could access it as well.
Humans have a remarkable desire to share, but the Internet was so large that it was difficult to determine what items to share more or less. The problem was that anything that needed a wider audience couldn’t be transmitted fast enough. Analogously, items that didn’t need attention got it anyway. Search engine providers sought to answer that problem by empowering website owners and information providers with a location to access their content. People only needed to know what they wanted vaguely, and the information was brought to them. Google took this a step further with PageRank, which made searches more intuitive by ranking them like academic journals rank paper influence: the more a website is referred/linked to, the website would bump to the top. In effect, Google defined importance: a page that is linked more ought to be one that people wish to be shared more. So, they bumped up that page’s ranking. With the Internet, knowledge sharing became possible. With search, sharing became easier. With Google, sharing became smarter.
It’s a Little More Complicated
A share is anything created by an individual and then put on the Internet for others to view. This includes more salient items like photos, music, text, and news articles; also more nuanced things such as a like on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter, and an update on Google+. Social Media has confounded the idea of sharing information with others. There are many reasons for this, but a simple example is motivated by the question, “How important is a like?” Is it based on the number of people who viewed it? The number of friends the individual who did the liking (or who had their item liked)? There is no parallel metric like that of scholarly journals, and currently the powers that be (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!) haven’t figured it out either.
The concept of ownership has also evolved far from just possessing the original piece of paper. The powers that be have recognized this, and have established some standards (e.g. Creative Commons), but more nuanced items don’t really have a place in those standards. Using the same motivation of the sharing issues, one could ask, “Who owns a like?” You may have committed the act of liking, but that was by clicking a button that was created by Facebook for your use. You look at Facebook’s ads, and Facebook lets you like what other people have to say.
You Should Care If They Are Evil
Google (and other search providers) have the responsibility to provide information that is more complicated to display in a way that respects the level of accessibility the owners desire. Since the beginning, the Internet has been a hub for sharing information with people. That information is held in an almost sacred light: I created this information for the goodness of others, and I want it shared respectfully. It seems fair that if I have information that a search engine has access to, it is their right to portray it in a way that respects the owners, given the confounds of sharing and ownership.
The issue lies in Google’s recent changes to how they handle the information you share:
- Google’s widespread platform applications (Mail, Maps, Photos, etc) now all share information with each other. Email that you read/send on Gmail is shared and crawlable by search.
- Google’s social network, Google+, dominates search results pages, trumping any information you may actually care about.
On top of this comes other privacy issues brought up before: search query handling, photo views, email’s created, advertisements shown… the list can be endless. (Check out your Google ‘dashboard’ to see how much the company knows about you!)
But, since we have no idea what ownership means or what happens when something is shared, we aren’t close to a judgment on the service just yet. On the one hand, Google’s promotion of its platform is competitive interest. On the other, the action tiptoes on anti-trust territory. Google’s placement of search results by your friends first may seem useful, since friends are a key source of information. But, Google may be too far-reaching with the platform if we ourselves are befuddled on the idea of information created by friends as well.
Evil is a grey area of judgment that is applied to picking an apple from the golden tree to being the leader of the Holocaust. While Google’s actions may exist partially in this area, Google may also be doing well given their intent. Further still, Google may simply have no knowledge of what good is, since human beings may not quite understand that either.
Tarun Gangwani is a masters student in the human-computer interaction program (HCI/d) at Indiana University. His background is in cognitive science, researching memory and language acquisition. He has 10 years of strategic consulting experience, including 4 years of management in technical consulting with University Information Technology Services. In June 2011, he co-founded Weekly Download (LLC), a site that explores emerging tech trends and discussions. The site’s podcast has over 10000 downloads on iTunes.