Monday, January 21, 2008

Why I Trust Google

Siva Vaidhyanathan, proprietor of the blog The Googlization of Everything, has a brief comment today on Google's open-source data project that I blogged about yesterday. As usual, I completely disagree with his comment, but it got me thinking about something.

Vaidhyanathan seems to think that it would have been better if the government would have set up something like this as a public service, rather than having a company such as Google do it. The broader version of this sentiment—that the government is more trustworthy than corporations—is pretty common, I think, and I find it very curious. The vast majority of the time, the government poses a far bigger danger to you than any corporation ever could, simply because the government has the guns and the jails and the authority to use them on you—“a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence,” to use the political science term for it. Corporations that make use of data mining or collaborative filtering or other tools that let them learn about your tastes and habits may be able to annoy you with eerily targeted advertisements, but only the government can take that data and decide that the pattern indicates that you're a criminal and ruin your life with it.

The exception to that dichotomy, of course, is the corporations that collaborate with the government in the “deciding that you're a criminal and ruining your life” department—think the RIAA, MPAA, and Microsoft. But for the most part the corporations that collaborate with the government in that way are the corporations that sell digital products directly to consumers and who need the threat of government punishment to keep consumers from pirating their stuff. Google (wisely, I think, for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post) has realized that more money can be made more easily by selling advertisements to third parties rather than selling stuff to customers. In that situation there's no reason for Google and its users to have an antagonistic relationship with each other, because economically they're both on the same side: both benefit when the users get what they want, which is free and copious access to Google's content and services.

So that's the short version of why I trust Google with my data: because they don't themselves have the power to harm me with it, and because they have no incentive to collaborate with governmental agencies that could harm me with it. The fact that Google has a history of going to court to fight the government when it tries to get data from them shows, I think, that Google itself known on which side its bread is buttered.

Along those lines, I'm interested to see how Google's expansion of its DC lobbying operations plays out. I'm mildly concerned that Google might wind up a little too cozy with the government, but I'm more intrigued by the possibility of having Google running around DC fighting on behalf of its users (who, remeber, are on the same side as Google) against the government and the corporations that collaborate with it.

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