Why Google Worries Me

Who doesn’t love Google?  Between search, Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, Google News, iGoogle, Google Maps – chances are that you interact with something “google” everyday.

This is true even if you don’t use any of the above services.  If you use the internet at all, you most likely see ads served by Google.  What you may not know is that Google posts only 1.2% of display ads on the internet – even Microsoft does better (4.3%), and Yahoo comes in first at 13%. (source)

Still, 1.2% of the online display ad market is nothing to scoff at, and Google easily takes the cake with search-related advertising in the U.S.  In March 2009, Google commanded 63.7% of U.S. search queries.  Other parts of the world aren’t quite as Google friendly (Yahoo maintains a solid lead in Japan, for example (source)), and that is why I believe it is important to discuss certain Google practices now…

…before it may be too late.  (And no, I’m not just being melodramatic.  Read on!)

Google Worry #1: “Interest-Based Advertising”

Traditionally, Google has served its ads using a contextual model – meaning that if you visit a website about cars, you will see car ads.  If you visit a blog about cooking, you will see food and kitchenware ads.

The advantage of the contextual model – to a consumer – is that no privacy is relinquished.  Google analyzes site content to determine what ads to show, and regardless of whether you are a man, a woman, old or young you will see the same ads.

Unfortunately, Google no longer uses only a contextual model.  As of March 2009, they have moved to what they call “interest-based advertising.”  This type of advertising is better referred to as “behavioral targeting,” because it works by tracking what sites you visit and changing ad content to match you – not the site on which the ads are found.

The official Google blog describes interest-based advertising like this:

“Today we are launching “interest-based” advertising as a beta test on our partner sites and on YouTube. These ads will associate categories of interest — say sports, gardening, cars, pets — with your browser, based on the types of sites you visit and the pages you view. We may then use those interest categories to show you more relevant text and display ads.” (source)

Behavioral targeting works by accessing cookies on your computer every time you visit a site that serves Google ads.  The cookie will remember what type of content you are viewing, and over time it will allow Google to build a comprehensive profile of what you are interested in.  If you start every day with a glance at nba.com, Google will remember that and show you sports-related ads regardless of what sites you visit.  If you receive an email in your Gmail account about a death in the family, Google can serve you funeral-related ads across every site you visit.

Worrisome, no?

Google attempts to allay public fears by reminding people that they can opt-out of this service – but unless you specifically go to their Ads Preferences Manager and select to opt-out – from every browser on every OS on every computer that you own – Google is going to assume you want in on this new feature.  (source)

Out of fairness, I need to note that Google is not the first company to use behavioral targeting – but it may be the most worrisome in this regard, given its extremely wide reach and past ambivalence toward privacy (see here, for example).

Google Worry #2: Android

If you haven’t heard of Android yet, it deserves a moment of your attention.  The full Wikipedia entry is available here.

As that article states, “Android is a software platform and operating system for mobile devices, based on the Linux kernel, developed by Google and later the Open Handset Alliance.”  That’s fine, but what is Android really about? Google’s CEO shines some light on this with his quote from the official Android press release:

“Our vision is that the powerful platform we’re unveiling will power thousands of different phone models.”

Google’s goal is to create an operating system that is largely device-independent – meaning it can power many different phones, and most likely computers as well.  In fact, proof-of-concept has already been demonstrated with Android netbooks.  Google wants to create an OS that is capable of running almost any electronic equipment.

So what’s wrong with this?  A number of things – potentially.

  • Android is not completely open source.  Parts of the SDK are closed source, which allows Google to directly control the project.  This is expounded upon in the Android SDK License Agreement, which reads:

    “You agree that Google (or Google’s licensors) own all legal right, title and interest in and to the SDK, including any intellectual property rights which subsist in the SDK. Use, reproduction and distribution of components of the SDK licensed under an open source software license are governed solely by the terms of that open source software license and not by this License Agreement. Until the SDK is released under an open source license, you may not extract the source code or create a derivative work of the SDK.”

    As this implies, Google doesn’t seem overly interested in using Android to give back to the open source world upon which Android is built.

  • But Android’s potentially parasitic relationship to open source doesn’t stop there.  While Android is based upon Linux, it is NOT a Linux OS.  Android operates via a simple framebuffer driver – meaning no X Server.  Taken a step further, this means that existing Linux apps cannot easily be used on Android, and Android apps cannot easily be used on Linux.  This means that all software developed for Android will not benefit users and developers of current Linux distributions.  This makes sense, as Google understandably wants to control distribution of all Android-based software (so as to make money off it).
  • But it’s not only Linux that Android snubs.  Android also doesn’t use any of the established java standards, despite implementing their own “version” of the java language.  This means that existing java apps (including Java SE/ME) will not work on Android, and Android apps won’t work on other phones.  Again – a move by Google to create vendor lock-in.

Could Android be to current-gen operating systems what Microsoft Windows was to the operating systems of 15 years ago – a clear attempt to destroy open standards, free-market competition, and ultimately consumer choice…?

Google Worry #3: Chrome

Chrome’s obsession with javascript speed is no random coincidence – Chrome is designed with the sole purpose of supporting online Google services (particularly Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Docs).  I suppose this isn’t inherently bad, but one has to wonder – why didn’t Google support an existing open source project like Firefox?  Firefox is well-established, reliable, and it already has an enormous user base.  If Google was truly interested in just “improving the online experience for everyone,” it would have cost them far less time and energy to work with Mozilla to improve the Firefox javascript engine.

But instead, Google went a more worrisome route – they have given the appearance of supporting open source, only to create a product that offers nothing to consumers and everything to Google.  Chrome, to me, seems to be another example of Google shunning existing open source solutions in favor of a custom Google-centric approach, and its sudden, random appearance seems to point to a Google-controlled internet comprised of their web services, Android, and the gateway between the two: the Chrome browser.

There are also some indications that Google may have illegally disassembled Vista’s kernel32.dll file as part of Chrome’s creation – but that discussion is beyond the scope of this document here.  Ars Technica provides a good write-up if you are interested.

Google Worry #4: Google Desktop

Continuing the trend of Google programs that appear to offer a benefit to consumers but may really be all about increasing Google’s reach, Google Desktop is a potential privacy nightmare.

First there is the clear risk of vulnerabilities exposed by a program that ties itself so deeply into your OS.  A detailed write-up of some of these concerns can be found here.

Second, the ability of Google Desktop to share index information across servers is not only largely unnecessary – but enormously dangerous.  To quote the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

If Google Desktop V.3 is set to allow Search Across Computers, files on an indexed computer are copied to Google’s servers. The potential for information stored on their computers to be accessed by others if they enable this feature of Google Desktop v. 3 on their computers should be seriously considered. The EFF advises against using this feature.  Also, those who have confidential data on their work or home computers should not enable this feature. There are privacy laws and company policies that could be violated through the installation of this feature, specifically, SB 1386, HIPAA, FERPA, GLBA and Sarbanes-Oxley.

I’d be curious to know how many other “free” programs offer to violate that many major laws and policies via one feature.  Certainly the supposed benefits of Google Desktop do not outweigh the potential risks.

Google Worry #5: Miscellaneous web services, including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, and others

Rather than going into great detail here, I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia entry for Google criticisms.  Additional criticism pages are available for individual services, including Gmail, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Groups, and Google Video.

A Google-Driven World…?

You may think that all these worries are just nitpicking on my part, and you could be right – after all, no one of these programs is ubiquitous enough to destroy the world.

But I have to wonder about Google’s long-term plans.

The combination of services to come out of Google over the last 5 years is fascinating.  An OS, a web browser, a web-based office suite, an email service, the purchase of YouTube.  Add all these up and what do you get?

You get a world where Google could potentially watch and/or control every aspect of a person’s computer usage.  Imagine what kind of profile they could compile if they watched your hard drive, your email, your documents, your online search habits, your video habits, where you travel, even what you buy.  Google could effectively know everything about you.

That day isn’t far off.  Android’s move to netbooks will almost certainly happen within the next two years.  Google’s online offerings have recently become even more powerful/intrusive with the addition of gearsYouTube is pushing to become a viable competitor (read: replacement) for Hulu.

I will easily wager that within the next two years, consumers will see a PC that runs completely off Google services – and the popular press will probably anoint this Google PC as the best thing since sliced bread.  But is a Google-driven world really in the best interest of consumers?  I don’t purport to know – but I think it’s certainly worth considering.

In the meantime, what can we, as educated consumers, do?

  1. Remove embedded Google code from your site/blog.  Unless you are paying bills with AdSense, forget about that $10 a year and go with another ad provider.  Drop Google Analytics (since you probably don’t know what 90% of those metrics mean anyway).  Unless you can’t afford to live without embedded Google code, do your site visitors a favor and drop it – this will speed up your site and also reduce any potential privacy concerns.
  2. Leave Blogger.  I appreciate Blogger for the ease of blogging it offers, but there are much better solutions out there.  WordPress, for one.
  3. Try other search engines.  You might be surprised by what you find.  Based on my experience, Yahoo offers much better cached versions of pages than Google.  MSN offers better results for image searches (source).
  4. Avoid Android.  Android doesn’t offer anything special at this point.  Yes, there are some cool features, but by and large there are other much better options.  I am no Apple fan, but the iPhone is a reasonable replacement for the G1.  The Palm Pre is already looking excellent.  Do your homework and use a cell phone with a less questionable relationship between privacy and advertising revenue.
  5. Uninstall Google Desktop and Chrome.  Neither of these pieces of software offer anything you can’t live without.  If you really want a desktop search tool, try one of these.  If you liked Chrome’s speed, download the latest Firefox beta.  You’ll find that its performance is neck-in-neck with Chrome.
  6. Opt out of Google’s new interest-based advertising program, and encourage others to consider the same.
  7. Consider supporting a truly open source project.  Ubuntu, OpenOffice.org, and GIMP are some of my personal favorites.

no_googleMy worry is that if people continue to blindly use every service and program Google offers, they run the risk of creating another Microsoft-sized monster.

Only this one could be so, so much worse, because it could dominate OSes, apps, and the web.

Is this just paranoia?  Are these worries legitimate?  As always, feel free to let me know.

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6 thoughts on “Why Google Worries Me”

  1. This article is very interesting. Just last week on my blog I talked about the same thing. I and a lot of other people were experience major problems with Google maps when using IE7 but Google Chrome worked perfectly and much faster. My question was is Microsoft IE7 faulty or did Google intentionaly create Maps that would be difficult to view in IE7.

    Bottom line, I’ve developed a habit of always choosing IE7 as a browser, but I’m starting to get into the habit of using Google Chrome more often.

  2. As you can imagine from this article, I’d recommend something other than Chrome or IE7 – Firefox. :) Firefox is an excellent browser, and once you get used to plugins it’s hard to ever go back…

    Regardless, thanks for the comment, Al.

  3. is Microsoft IE7 faulty or did Google intentionaly create Maps that would be difficult to view in IE7.
    Who knows? What we DO know, is that MS tried just that trick with MS sites, to “prove” Opera didn’t handle CCS correctly…
    What goes around, comes around? :-)

  4. Some valid points, but you’re criticism of Android baffles me. Especially when when you go on to recommend the Palm Pre and iPhone. Both of which do not improve upon Android with regard to the criticisms you list.

    Apple are constantly changing the sync process to actively prevent users syncing content without using iTunes – so that they can tie every user into their product model (as an iPhone owner and linux user, I can now no longer put any music on my iPhone thanks to OS3.0).

    The fact that HTC, Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson are planning Android phones this year surely means there’s some benefit to at least partly open-sourcing Android (okay, when you wrote this in April you may not have known that). Where are the devices by 3rd parties running iPhone OS and Palm WebOS?

  5. Thanks for the comments, Neil. Certainly some things have changed since April (like Apple’s shocking mind-games with iTunes syncing), but I believe my original comments about Android remain valid today. It’s important to see the Android comments as part of the larger article, as opposed to a stand-alone critique.

    The iPhone OS is an invalid comparison to Android because it is not open source. When developers write iPhone apps, they must realize that they are bound by whatever requirements Apple sets forth. That is Apple’s prerogative as the complete owner of their OS.

    Android is different because Google is building it off existing open-source components. As such, my complaints against Android are two-fold.

    1) By creating a unique run-time environment for Android apps, Google is preventing Linux users from using Android apps (despite the fact that Android wouldn’t exist without Linux). I can’t necessarily fault Google for this – after all, they understandably want to control the distribution channels of Android software – but I find it very much against the principles of FOSS.

    Canonical is working to circumvent this (see here, for example), but it’s unfortunate that this is the length current Linux distros have to go to in order to make use of Android software.

    I am admittedly not enough of an expert in WebOS to know whether or not their FOSS attitude is anything like Google’s.

    2) Android is more worrisome as part of the larger Google ecosystem, where Google is attempting to unify an entire human computing experience under the Google logo. Palm and Apple are less worrisome in this regard, IMO, because they lack web services similar to Google’s.

  6. with all due respect, I disagree with you about Android.

    “While Android is based upon Linux, it is NOT a Linux OS. Android operates via a simple framebuffer driver – meaning no X Server.”

    It IS a Linux OS because Linux just refers to the kernel. They are not obligated to use desktop userland tools. What is so sinful about coding their own userland if it works better for mobile?

    And if you have these problems with Android, why recommend OSX mobile or WebOS? OSX mobile is more closed than Android and WebOS has its own userland built on Linux, just like Android.

    Why not recommend a handset built on LiMo or the Nokia N900 built on a “real” Linux distro?

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