WSJ Privacy Series Raises Questions on Google’s Power

The bedrock principles of the Googleplex were built on sand, after all

A lot of times you see these multipart newspaper series bring diminishing returns after the first day or two. Not so with The Wall Street Journal’s excellent, ongoing What They Know package.

Yesterday, Jessica Vascellaro took on the big dog: Google. It’s “don’t be evil” marketing spiel is by the day proving to be just that. Read it and watch Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s high-minded principles crumble as the barbarians of the Internets claw at the monopoly gates.

Or as the Journal puts it:

Until recently, it refrained from aggressively cashing in on its own data about Internet users, fearing a backlash. But the rapid emergence of scrappy rivals who track people’s online activities and sell that data, along with Facebook Inc.’s growth, is forcing a shift.

Vascellaro got hold of some internal documents of Google brainstorming about how far it can go with its users’ information.

Shifting off your bedrock ethical and moral principles takes a capacity for rationalization and self-delusion, and it doesn’t hurt to have crafty advisers whispering in your ear:

The founders believe they are improving the Internet user’s experience, said Alma Whitten, who leads Google’s privacy engineering, in a June interview. “What’s good for the consumer is good for the advertiser.”

And so:

For years it resisted using any method to track people online without their knowledge at the fierce insistence of founders Sergey Brin and Mr. Page…

A recent Journal examination of the proliferation of online tracking found that Google’s tracking code appeared on 45 of the 50 most popular U.S. websites.

The thing is, that trove of information that we’ve let Google assemble on us is just too tempting not to exploit. The WSJ reports that Google has even considered using your private emails to sell ads targeted at you on other sites. You can bet that will happen barring outside restraint.

Which brings us to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, controller and overseer of perhaps the greatest trove of personal, private information ever assembled, but who thinks it’s fine to go on CNBC and say stuff like: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”:

Hubris is also helpful if you’re going to abandon your principles and still try to look in the mirror. Here’s Schmidt earlier this year, as reported by Fortune:

“All this information that you have about us… Does that scare everyone in this room?” The questioner asked… “Would you prefer someone else?” Schmidt shot back… “Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?”

As I said then: “You mean a democratic government subject to, say, open-records laws, checks and balances, and the periodic will of the people?”

So, yes, it’s disturbing that one company controls so much of the world’s private information and has set itself down the slippery slope of exploitation. Where will it stop? I don’t know and neither does Google. The only certainty is that without restraints on its behavior—either through regulation or through social protest—it will go further than today it thinks it ever would. Just in the last few days we’ve seen Google gut its longtime insistence on net neutrality. You can bet that a year or two ago, the Googlebots would never have dreamed that would happen.

Collecting all this information raises the question of how we’ll find out about inevitable abuses of this power? I don’t believe that power accumulated can ever go unused in perpetuity. Put it this way: If your ex worked at Google, would you want to be talking about him on your Gmail account?

There’s a bigger question here, too: Do we want to be better targeted? Do we want the advertisers and marketers—whose objective, after all, is to manipulate you—to know more about us and so be better able to manipulate us?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.