Can companies be „not evil“

We all know that Googles motto is "Don't be evil". They claim that although they are admittedly out to make money, there are moral barriers they won’t break.

That’s fine and dandy, but… 

  • Pagerank is obviously a very powerful tool when it comes to actually affect peoples minds (People rarely scroll to the 3rd page of results. Put information you want to keep out of peoples minds there, instead on page 1, and no one will bother.)
  • They are capable gathering a slew of personal information without us noticing. Who knows, if at some point in time, someone gets tempted ?
  • Monopoly: Already a majority of internet users only use google. If it would be gone right now, I would be sorely handicapped. What if they suddenly charge money, or use this for political leverage ? 

The list of concerns could be made longer and longer. So, there is a definite danger, despite what Google claims.

On the other hand,

Google actually is making my life a lot easier: Google Mail (or gmail, is it is legally known outside germany) is simply the best webmail service I’ve encountered. Actually, I find it better than my locally installed MS Outlook (offline flavour). Google Maps is so cool it defies describing it (and I can’t even use it to the fullest extend, as I’m missing all the extra information with diners, etc in my location).

And of course I belong to that majority that regularly uses Google to find whatever I need to find on the net — successfully.

Still, occasionally, small worries overcome me: What if Google suddenly decides to mis-use what they know over me ? Perhaps they are already selling files with my behaviour data to data miners ? Or worse: What if someone decides to construct something wildly accusatory out of this data, and gets me into trouble with the law ? (As Scott Adams once pointed out in one of this Dilbert books: Everyone of us has done wrong something, be it crossing a red traffic light, cheating with the tax or forgetting to get a valid bus ticket. We all belong into prison really.)

Then I read my favourite computer magazine, and find them mentioning a product that watches my work, and automatically shows useful web links in a side window. Magically, without me actually doing any search. Right now for example, it might show me links to the EFF, or to some technology article detailing what data about me Google can retrieve and what it couldn’t . This certainly sounds like a very cool concept. I might even pay money for that.

Which brings me back to the start of this entry: We’ve grown used to the fact that most information and services on the internet are free. Google, newssites, map services, dictionaries, etc. I’m right now using a free browser (Firefox), and a free blog software (Serendipity) to create this blog entry. 

When I stumble with something, I’ll fire up www​.google​.com or surf to heise​.de to check some technical fact — all free of charge.

But behind most of these services are real companies, that put out real money to create these. Not because the are nice to me, but because they have some sort of business model that makes them think that ultimately they’ll earn money by doing this.

Currently, most of this money comes from advertising. Companies offer some free service and finance this by adding advertising on their pages. 

At least for Google, this actually seems to work. Although I have to admit, I’m still sceptical: I for sure never click on these links. Actually, I mostly don’t even see them, as I have the Adblock extension for Firefox installed.

So at least in my case, the business model is bust; I use the free service, but give nothing in return, and don’t see or click the ads. If all Internet users would be like me (which they probably aren’t), advertising would stop being a source of revenue.

I can only guess that many companies offering „free“ internet services are already coming to a similar conclusion. News sites often „lock“ older articles, and only make them available to those who pay for them. Those who don’t often demand a „free“ registration instead (or additionally even).

One has to ask: Why ?

Two reasons spring to mind:

  1. it scares away some of the possible readers, as they don’t want to register. This saves bandwith, ie costs.
  2. they want to collect and exploit the data from the registered users.

    Scaring away users is probably not the reason, as it’s silly: For a successful website, it’s all about getting more users. 

So we’re stuck with the other reason. Gathering and then using data about users commercially. Which is kinda scary, don’t you think ? Of course, there are many things one can do at this point if one is a company that wants to make money out of user data. Some of those things are probably even quite acceptable. 

But a lot of things might involve spammers, insurance companies that want to cut costs, lawyers, and other unsavoury things. Things that the average liberally minded netizen puts into the „evil“ category. So who guarantees that Google won’t turn evil when the ad revenues are getting slim ? 

Or what happens when an evil minded government excercises pressure on the de facto monopolist for Internet Searches and forces them to censor content ?

That said, I continue being optimistic. For now, I like, and trust, Google.

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