Google states its goal as “making all the world’s information ‘universally accessible and useful.’ ” Information Technology magazine in 2009 compared Google’s achievement to that of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press in facilitating the spread of knowledge.

Google’s market capital value in late 2009 was estimated at more than $154 billion. The programming that permits instantaneous Web browsing also makes possible a new method of earning advertising income. Advertisers pay only for “hits,” that is, when people click a business’s name on the screen to go to its site. Even though the per-click income is very small, with millions of hits, it can accumulate quickly. Even though the Google screen is limited to lines of text rather than enticing graphics, advertisers in general are satisfied with the effectiveness of their listings. Unlike traditional advertising, the success of which can be measured only very generally in overall sales, the Google method tabulates how many people actually have followed the ad.

While the approach has lured advertisers with very lucrative results for Google, it has been one source of recent accusations that Google is violating users’ privacy, accusations that have increased as Google status has increased.

When Google initiated Gmail for Internet e-mail, it offered vast storage space to users, claiming that they would never even have to delete a message. The exchange for this service has been Google’s ability to have its computers search through mail for key words that result in advertising links that accompany the message on the right side of the computer screen. For example, if a message contains the word “shoe,” paid listings of online shoe stores will accompany it. At first, when Gmail was released, many people protested, but now millions take the ads for granted. Google argues that it does not keep records of what individuals write about or purchase.

However, privacy advocates are not convinced. In 2010, vehicles with 360-degree cameras taking pictures of Google Street Views also gathered personal information from unencrypted wi-fi services in many parts of the world. The Australian government for one called the activity “probably the biggest breach in the history of privacy.” Google apologized and admitted acting in error. The German government demanded that Google turn over the data and considered prosecution.

These are examples of official actions against Google. In contrast, Google Buzz met with immediate protests from thousands of users, including a class action lawsuit and complaint to the Federal Trade Commission by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Buzz was integrated into Gmail in an attempt to compete with social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter. The problem was that Buzz automatically revealed the names of Gmail contacts users communicated with, potentially making sensitive information public. Within days of Buzz’s launch, Google had to apologize and remove the automatic disclosure.

As Google’s range of ambitions grows, so does the alarm at its apparent desire to control much more than online advertising. Google Docs provides online programming that competes with Microsoft Office for word processing and spread sheets. Although so far capturing only a small percentage of Web browser users, Google Chrome attempts to challenge Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Google has had greater success with its open-source Android operating system for cell phones that competes with Apple’s proprietary-code iPhone. Google even manufactures a physical product, its own Android phone. For Google, the possibilities seem endless.

In 2004, when Google announced its ambitious plan to digitalize the world’s books and a number of major libraries, including Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford, and The New York Public Library, agreed to make their collections available, the immediate reactions were laudatory. What other company possessed the wealth and computing capability to realize a once impossible dream? But, eventually, doubts arose. Competitors protested at the notion of Google having exclusive rights. Publishers and authors rebelled at the threats to copyrights and royalties. Governments sued to block the process until new arrangements were made. Google compromised to control less and offer larger payments, but issues continue to crop up.

Separating the positives and negatives of many Google enterprises is complex. Google Earth, for example, offers satellite views of the entire earth with zooming in on very small areas and even individual buildings. The technology literally opens up the world to observation and is used by many news organizations. Yet people object to having their homes made public and their privacy invaded. Governments are concerned about the secrecy of defense facilities when anyone with a computer can access pictures limited to satellites not many years ago.

Many experts argue that privacy as we have known it in the past is lost forever, impossible to restore. Some dismiss this loss as a sacrifice well worth it for access to information and ease of communication. Others find it a price far too great to pay.

—Walter Cummins

References

Auletta, Ken. Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.

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Who2. “Sergey Brin Biography.” http://www.who2.com/sergeybrin.html

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Woodipoo Biographies. “Sergey Brin Biography.” http://www.woopidoo.com/biography/sergey-brin/index.htm .