Pandora’s Google

It appears that the Google is out of the box now, and there’s no point in trying to stuff it back in, because it’s already been unleashed on the world. There is no turning point and no possibility of going back. The question now is not “can we control it” or “what can we do about it,” but “how can we protect ourselves.”

I remember when Google was a small, small thing. An interesting thing with some possibilities. A really good search engine which quickly captured my loyalties as a user. That was the first step; it seemed like such a small and easy thing, to stop using the search engines I didn’t like and to start relying on Google because it delivered what I wanted. This, the first step, was innovative and creative and it built a loyal user base.

And it  meant that the next time Google released a new feature, I was intrigued by it, because it was Google, and I liked Google, and so felt an instant fondness for it. A connection. Google laid a crafty web before it sprung the trap. I took things up, great and small, and Google bought things up, folding more users into its customer base and ensuring that everyone on the Internet was, in some way, connected to Google. Reliant on. Dependent upon, even. Whether you use GMail or Google Documents or Blogger or Picasa or Orkut, Google in some way enables you to do something; something social, something work-related.

Of course, there was an understanding on some level that Google was not doing this out of the goodness of its heart. Clearly it was gaining something from it, as evidenced by the ads which crept along the sides of things, targeted to your activities. And certainly the ads became more targeted and precise as time went on and Google gathered information about you.

I recently logged on to my Google Dashboard because I was curious to see how many of my accounts were linked and what kind of information Google was gathering and storing. It was actually rather awe inspiring. Every comment I’ve made on a Google service. Every email. Every rating on a YouTube video I’ve made while logged in to my Google Account. Analytics profiles on my websites (no wonder I get notices from AdWords clamouring for space on my websites). My calendars, my documents, my Reader.

It’s a huge assortment of data and it was kind of intense to be confronted with it all at once like this. I had adopted all of these services by choice, one by one, and here they are, all strung together. I, me, myself, I am in this data. Google has learned substantial things about me and can learn much more by fitting pieces together. Pieces I freely gave Google. Google is profiting from this information and I receive not a cent; the benefit to me is the service, but how much of that is a benefit, given the other costs?

Google has been revealing the direction of its shift slowly over time, but warning bells started ringing with the Google Buzz fiasco, in which private email accounts were suddenly connected with the world, and people could draw lines and threads of connections with pretty minimal effort. Suddenly things which I thought were private, like who I corresponded with, were not. There was, understandably, an outcry.

Had Google really never considered the fact that some people use email accounts for communications which might conflict, like emails with conservative parents and discussions with abortion counselors? That people might have serious personal safety concerns, like not wanting abusive ex-partners to be able to find out who they socialise with? That some people just prefer to be private? That for some activists, knowing whom someone is connected to is enough to unveil an identity and that this can be extremely dangerous?

Evidently not, or evidently Google didn’t care, and it seems to have grown worse from here. Google’s search has changed radically. Now I get “social” results from my searches. I can rank and comment on search results. Things from Twitter show up when I am not looking for things from Twitter. Now, searches of social networking sites might indeed serve a function and have value, but I think of this as a different kind of search service, or at the very least as something which people should be able to opt out of, to choose whether or not they want to view, say, Facebook statuses when they are actually just trying to find a plumber.

And, more terrifyingly, even though I have no Google Profile, people I correspond with who do have a profile are linked to me, and I am in turn linked to their “networks” which include all their contacts. I can pull up a list of everyone who a friend of mine is connected to, and that list handily provides me with links to their profiles, their sites (including probably private sites), and, of course, their names. I could just as easily extrapolate that information backwards; for example, if someone who has a Google Profile emails me and wants to be anonymous, I could examine that person’s connections and possibly figure out who ou was, through process of elimination and connection.

This is terrifying. And I, and so many others, are so entangled with Google now that it’s hard to back out. The deed is done. The information is already out there. It’s cached. The question is: What happens now?