As someone who has been on the world wide web (aka Internet) since the beginning, using Mosaic and Netscape (browsers) to access many of Google’s predecessors (Alta Vista, Lycos, eXcite), I have a broad perspective on the technology. And, as you obviously know, I’m an out-of-the-womb pragmatist. This combination makes me more sanguine about the angst over privacy and personal data when it comes to Google than some, who have come to find little value in the company’s motto to do no evil. If I’m concerned with evil, I’d avoid Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook long before I’d find myself questioning the motives of Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google).
There’s distrust of new technologies that can be linked to a much higher awareness about privacy issues. And yet, as the utility and value of these technologies (particularly applications) become more obvious, it’s difficult to resist all that they offer. If, for example, you use Google’s features such as calendar and turn-by-turn map navigation, you could receive a notification that due to traffic congestion on the route typically used to reach your appointment destination, you might want to leave 15 minutes earlier or select another route. This integration of services is both useful and yet sort of creepy. But you will not be late to your appointment thanks to this integration.
Evil is a matter of intent and results. And thus, there’s a conundrum. To benefit from the integration of technologies, you have to share information about your life. But information has degrees of granularity — the amount and specificity of details. And what happens to that information is really the issue. You might not share any or much of it with friends or coworkers, but what will Google do with it? Perhaps nothing, but if you want to know about special offers from retailers or restaurants along your route, they could provide that using GPS data. Show the offer to a salesperson or server and Google makes money. It’s one way for the company to help pay for the considerable costs of the technological infrastructure and (hardware/software) engineers that make all of this possible.
Or you could use a different search engine that doesn’t gather any data from you and makes your searches anonymous, such as DuckDuckGo. There are a lot of search engines, actually. Many have come and gone because monetizing the costs for them is not easily done. Indeed, even Google is having issues doing so on mobile devices, where advertising results in much less revenue. As a pragmatist, I find it difficult to fault Google for wanting to have sufficient profits to pay for its costs, fund its extensive research and development, and pay dividends to shareholders.
The issues regarding privacy and doing no evil while offering services that are valuable to many represent both a dynamic balance and a point of view. Some individuals are far less concerned about privacy than others, they differ on what constitutes evil and they place varying degrees of importance on the services offered. It seems part of human nature to distrust companies that become successful and dominant in this field of endeavor. The bigger they are, the more hostility there is toward them — some justified, some not. For me, it’s Facebook that I find far more troubling than Google. Mark Zuckerberg’s goals have always been for minimal privacy (except for himself) and leveraging user postings to drive ad revenues. Only pushback from users and enforcement by government agencies have placed limits on these goals.
For those looking forward to robots as assistants, I suggest that issues of privacy will become far more pervasive. Robotics, long the purview of science fiction, is becoming the next major technological wave, and will dominate the twenty-first century. The issues of privacy, safety and ethical boundaries will dwarf the ones presented by mobile technologies. From my pragmatic perspective, the conundrums of not doing evil will increase in scale and consequence. And, yes, Google has spent tens of millions acquiring a variety of robotics companies. As with driverless cars, their efforts will reveal the possibilities and the limits of new technologies. Evil, as with so many things, is in the eye and mind of the beholder.