Google is a company that was conceptualized in a dorm room by two Stanford University college students in 1996 (Arnold, 2005, p. 1) and has morphed into one of the greatest technological powerhouses in operation today. What began as merely a means to analyze and categorize Web sites according to their relevance has developed into a vast library of widely utilized resources, including email servicing, calendaring, instant messaging and photo editing, just to reference a few. Recent statistics collected by SearchEngineWatch.com reflects that of the 10 billion searches performed within the United States during the month of February, 2008, an impressive 5.9 billion of them were executed by Google (Burns, 2008). Rated as Fortune Magazine’s top American company to work for in both 2007 (“100 Best”, 2007)and 2008 (“100 Best”, 2008), Google obviously has curbed the market on fair and friendly treatment of its employees. But how does it measure up when one considers the ethics in relation to its business practices? The purpose of this paper is to identify and evaluate the ethical concerns specific to privacy faced by this herculean computing company and to determine the effectiveness of their treatment of these issues.
Google opens their corporate code of ethics with a simple sentence – “Don’t be evil” (Google Code of Conduct, ¶1). This statement is consistent with the theory of virtue ethics, placing emphasis on the importance of developing to the highest potential. They may not necessarily be considered evil, but Google does engage in practices that are certainly vague and could be considered disreputable. Google’s questionable corporate policies in relation to privacy have long been a subject of contention amongst consumer privacy groups and computing organizations.
The terms of service statement provided by Google that relates to all of its provided products is concerning. It reads “by submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through the Services” (Google Terms of Service, Section 11.1). A user’s agreement to this statement gives Google full rights to use the content posted through their services in any way that they see fit. Considering the fact that this single document is in essence a blanket statement that applies to every service operated by Google, the effects of this statement are enormous. Essentially, Google is given open license to use any video posted on YouTube, any comments written on Blogger, and any photographs uploaded to Picasa, all entities controlled by Google, Inc. Things that users might consider to be personal instantly become the property of Google at the click of the mouse. Even though the images or comments are posted to the publicly accessible Internet, most do not consider the reality that the use of those images or comments, meant to be shared with family or friends, are out of their control when the upload is complete.
The significance of installing a cookie that assigns a unique identifier to each system is that Google is given the ability to read, identify and record every action a users takes when using Google products. The data collected by these cookies, combined with data acquired by content extraction (discussed further within this paper), allows Google to create user profiles based on the subjects they search (Google Search, Google Scholar, Book Search, Blog Search, Image Search, Custom Search), their purchasing habits (Google Checkout), the statements they make within personal communications (Gmail, Google Talk), the activities they participate in (Google Calendar), and the data they store on their computers (Google Desktop).
Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) believe that Google’s practice of monitoring private communications can be construed as a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Their policy could set a bad legal precedent, in that a court might “consider the service as evidence of a lack of a reasonable expectation in e-mail” (EPIC, 2004), giving other service providers, employers and government agencies a legal means for monitoring communications amongst its users. As stated by George Reynolds, author of Ethics in Information Technology, “without a reasonable expectation of privacy, there is no privacy right to protect” (2007, p. 108).
Google Desktop was originally developed and released as a means for a simplified and faster search of a user’s personal computer. The tool, which requires installation on the user’s computer, allowed the user to perform two consecutive queries – one which was sent to Google to perform a Web search while the other searched the user’s personal index housed on their computer. The results page would then feature two separate sets of findings – one public and one private. The language of Google’s privacy statement in regards to the original release of Desktop stated that “these combined results can be seen only from your own computer; your computer’s content is never sent to Google” (Arrington, 2006).
One of Google’s most blatant violations of privacy rights is the introduction of Google Maps Street View, a sub-service of Google Maps. Released in May of 2007, Street View displays high-resolution photographs taken from the street level of many major metropolitan cities throughout the country. It provides the user with a virtual tour of these cities and allows them to zoom in with the ability to view close up shots of landmarks, buildings, and any other object present at the moment of capture, including people. Screen captures taken from Street View cameras have included images of women sunbathing in bikinis and men walking into strip clubs (Schroeder, 2007). A glaring example of privacy invasion is a recent case uncovered by The Smoking Gun (“Warning”, 2008) in which Google’s Street View cameras crossed property boundaries and captures images of a Pittsburgh homeowners driveway, garage and backyard (including such detailed views as their children’s trampoline) after driving on to the home’s private driveway with the cameras capturing constant screen shots – an unmistakable invasion of presumed privacy. As of this writing, it is unknown whether or not the homeowners in this case have made contact with Google regarding the issue of trespassing and if so, what Google’s response might have been.
In an environment when the use of nearly any on-line service requires the user to agree to a set of terms, it is evident that most do not take the time to read and fully understand the impact that those policies may have in regards to their personal information. Even one of the creators of Google, Sergey Brin, acknowledged in a statement to reporters that he thinks “it’s interesting that the expectations of people with respect to what happens to their data seems to be different than what is actually happening” (Bridis, 2006). The question remains whether or not Google is responsible for their user’s inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend their policies and relate them to possible consequences associated when using one or all of Google’s products.
Google is not a non-profit organization, offering its products strictly for the benefit of society. It is a business which requires profits to continue its operations; therefore its ultimate concern is that its shareholders are pleased with their earnings as a direct result of Google products. Google has become a leader in its field by developing unique and superior products and partnering those products with clever marketing and plain talk language that puts an unskilled user at ease with regards to Google’s services. The absence of any legislation that closely regulates electronic content has provided Google the ability to set their own standards without the threat of accountability when privacy breaches are recognized, aided by the fact that Google has successfully dominated their market space.
Are Google’s policies clear as they relate to user privacy? The answer is both yes and no. Google is truthful in regards to their data collection policies, but appear to operate under different assumptions of privacy than most. But in the age of Internet communications, what kind of privacy can one truly expect, especially when the topic of personally identifiable information is introduced. Google has developed a certain level of assumed trust with their user base that may not be completely well deserved. What began as a simple means to search the resources of the World Wide Web has been transformed into a technological mega-corporation that has utilized their initial popularity to lure users to employ more and more of their clever innovations, all the while building upon their empire. The familiarity of Google has eliminated user caution. Given the current and future growth of the World Wide Web, there appears to be no end to the debate over acceptable expectations of privacy. A corporation as recognizable and influential as Google, though, has a responsibility to set the bar high for other businesses that exist within the competitive and lucrative industry of computing. Google’s existing policies are a disappointing example of the direction being taken by corporations in regard to basic user rights. Hopefully, they will closely consider the concerns of experts in the field as well as their customers when reviewing, modifying and creating new products and policies in the years to come and heed their own advice – “Don’t be evil!”
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