Google: What Goes on Behind the Curtain?

WASHINGTON Siva Vaidhyanathan, cultural historian and associate professor of media studies and the law at the University of Virginia, thinks the search-engine company Google, with a stock price above $600 a share, knows a lot about its customers.

Yet, he thinks the public has little knowledge of what goes on behind the curtain at a company that is building a new model for advertising and communication.

That’s why Vaidhyanathan says he is writing a “critical interpretation” of Google on the Web. The book, The Googlization of Everything, will try to answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google? How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge? How has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions and states?

The effort is one of the online “open book” experiments initiated by the Institute for the Future of the Book, a think tank studying how books will evolve in the digital age.

Q: You describe Google as a transformative and revolutionary company. What makes Google so unique, and why did you pick it as the topic for your book?
A: Google is the most interesting institution in the world right now. It is working its way into our consciousness and daily lives at a remarkable rate that is unmatched by any company in human history. And it is doing so in a fairly novel way through the aggregation of our choices. We are choosing to use Google every day. We are not forced or seduced into using it. It actually means Google is laying out a new model for advertising and communication. Any time an institution becomes that powerful, that influential and that rich in such a short period of time, we have to start asking the hard questions.

What do you hope to gain from online readers?
What I am after here is instant peer review. I want the readers of the blog to give me instant feedback and corrections on the claims I am making as I propose them. When I am all done with the manuscript, I want to have confidence that most of my claims and assessments have been tested among a very informed public. I am not allowing readers to alter my text. I am allowing them to comment on my text and argue with each other about the direction I am going in. I could have used a wiki [where readers can edit text], but I am not ready for that much engagement.

In your blog, you say that you have always been a champion of “open-source models of scholarship,” but that Google is a “black box.” What do you mean by that?
Every private company is going to be possessive of its trade secrets, technology and plans. We can’t expect a company to be as transparent as the government is. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push at it to be more responsive to our concerns, especially about user confidentiality and privacy. That is the hot-button issue. Most of us are not Google’s customers. We are its content. It sells our attention and our user data to its customers and they are all the businesses that advertise with Google. Google is not necessarily more secretive than Coca-Cola, but the difference is Google knows everything about us. When a corporation goes public, there are certain standards of transparency that have to be met through the Securities and Exchange Commission. Google meets that [standard], being a publicly traded corporation. But the real challenge is how little we understand how much [information about ourselves] we are giving up to Google. We are the uncompensated resource in Google’s business model. All of this information is being collected and we don’t know what they are doing with it.

Google has introduced a new 411 service that you mention in your blog where callers from mobile phones can get free directory information services. What are your thoughts on that? Why do you think it’s not truly free? Is Google really trying to gather information on voices to create better speech-recognition technology?
That makes sense, but I wish that had been front and center in their explanation. They should have said, “Help us collect this information so we can improve voice-recognition technology,” instead of presenting it as a better way to order pizza. I pay T-Mobile way too much money for using directory information, and the information is not always so good. Google is offering me a better service at no cost. What I am giving up to Google is my voice data. The nice thing about this project is that Google will find no value in associating my voice with my data file because there is no real value in knowing my voice. They have no reason to abuse my data in this particular project. This is a nice tradeoff, and I give Google some more to work with to build voice-recognition technology, which could be really cool. And I get free information service and that challenges T-Mobile to drop the price and that is ultimately good for everybody. I am basing my judgment of this service on the information Google put out and some commentary of people who follow the company closely, but we don’t know for sure how benign this service really is. Google is fascinating because it improves our lives in both little and big ways, and it is frustrating because it is not honest and straightforward about what it is taking from us.

If you follow marketing and public relations tactics, developing a mystery around your business helps image specialists translate that into an intriguing narrative that captures the public’s imagination. Couldn’t the whole secrecy behind Google amount to nothing more than an elaborate PR campaign to constantly build awareness and keep audiences interested, rather than something more alarming?
I doubt it, largely because Google has shown a strong lack of interest in public relations. In matters of public relations, it has actually been rather clumsy. Anytime anyone complains about Google’s privacy policies, it dodges the question. It says, “We have to know a lot about our users so we can serve our users better,” but nobody really believes that. In addition, the controversies over mobile phone policy, net neutrality and book search have shown Google unable to affect public debate. They haven’t made a difference in how the public understands the issues.

If Google’s core business is consumer profiling, as one of your blog readers suggests, then what the company is really all about is finding ways to more efficiently target ads at consumers. Is that a bad thing?
No, it is not such a bad thing. What is really great about their advertising business is it’s not obnoxious. They make a tremendous amount from advertising a nickel at a time without screaming at us. It is opposite the P&G version of advertising, where they get in your face for 30 seconds and [don’t] let you go. It is a cheap enough advertising service for all sorts of small businesses who can’t even afford to be on the radio. The real question comes down to how much we know about what we are putting out there and putting at risk. It is really about the transactions. The reason I am doing the book is so we can put questions out there about how it affects our lives. It is shaking up the advertising, publishing and mobile-phone industries. It is trying to convince the Federal Communications Commission to force mobile-phone companies to buy extra spectrum space to issue open phone sets so customers can move from one service to another. It is trying to complete an operating system for mobile phones that would compete with the BlackBerry and iPhone. And it is doing it cheaper and easier, and it makes you part of the Google universe. Google is concerned that we are moving from the Internet to the closed boxes of mobile phones. Google is far from the worst technology company in the world. The concern I have is they will become our starting point and end point in our information-seeking habits, and [that] will have an altering and twisted effect on how we view the world.

Do we really know if Google keeps dossiers on us? Does it work like the data-mining company Acxiom, which collects information on consumer-buying habits?
Yes, we know they have dossiers, but what we don’t know is how much personally identifiable information is attached. The dossiers are attached to IP numbers, but we don’t know how much they know beyond our location. But for people who use Gmail [Google’s e-mail service], Google Docs [which allows users to share documents] or iGoogle [a start-page tool where users can aggregate all their Google services], we sign into those services and we subscribe to them. We give personal information and use those services in a way that sends personal information over the Internet. In that case, it is clear Google has personal information on us. Google says it will limit how long it will keep our personal information in our dossier. They do track our clicks to such a degree that they can customize results. The search results are guided by the habits we express when we use Google.

What is your reaction to Google’s announcement in April that it plans to buy DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. Would this give Google more consumer data?
Google and DoubleClick really don’t compete directly, but Google will have much more of a footprint in the total advertising world online. But the whole thing has frightened everybody. I get concerned when Google buys up something really important because I see it as a potential loss for competition. I don’t see this as a classic anti-trust issue. To me, it was a very interesting move, but not one that alarms me. It will be interesting to see how it plays in Europe, where they are more sensitive to privacy. I don’t quite know what to make of their plans for DoubleClick and they don’t always tell you what they are up to. When you ask, “What are you going to do with it?” then they are silent. That is part of what is interesting. We think of Google as being this blank white page with a search box and the ultimate lens through which we seek out the weird and the new, yet Google is completely inscrutable. It is frustrating and exciting. The more I try to get my mind around what they are doing, the more they keep surprising me. I have had friends move to Google and they are not as open as they used to be.

Why do you think transparency is good for business?
I wouldn’t go that far. I know transparency is good for consumers. There are times when the state has to step in and demand transparency on behalf of consumers. I am not a believer in corporate responsibility, but I also think that the governments and publics of the world have to stand up and defend the public trust. To what extent should we regulate companies like Google should they become too powerful? We saw it with Microsoft, but more importantly we saw it with AT&T. We saw a high level of regulation that defended the public interest and shut out innovation. Can we regulate in a way that doesn’t lock in a company the way we did with AT&T, but still defend the interests of the public?

Do you know if Google is actually building a virtual world to rival Second Life?
I have no idea. I am not sure that Second Life is all that important in the first place. If they are doing something, they are probably searching for something much bigger and grander than SL. Google tends to wait to enter a market until they are ready to. I do know they are working on artificial intelligence and all sorts of simulations projects. It is pretty clear that Google works a lot like a university, where they let teams imagine really cool projects that might not ever work and that is OK, much like old AT&T and Bell Labs. It is the sort of thing we never really know much about and we will never know all the things they failed at.

Why do you think Google is the wrong company to produce and maintain the “universal library” based on its Book Search project launched in 2004? Who should produce a universal library?
This project is too important to be left to one company. This is the sort of project with great potential to improve the world and it should be exactly what all the major governments of the world should be doing. This should be a multinational, multi-library project driven by a sense of concern about the future of the species. It should be governed by the public, funded by the public and accountable to the public. We have already heard about the copyright battles, but all of these public university libraries are giving away centuries of riches to this private company which is then in charge of what gets viewed, how and by whom. It is a pretty stunning example of corporate welfare.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin once said, “The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.” Why does that statement bother you?
It does bother me because it is hubristic and it does apply a will to omniscience that should be offensive to mortals. We should be wary when anyone aspires to the power of the divine. That is reason enough to keep an eye on this company. We should be wary of false prophets.

Wendy Melillo is an ‘Adweek’ contributing writer and an assistant professor at the School of Communication at American University.