Why Google won’t do evil

by on September 12, 2008 · 16 comments

In response to Adam and Berin’s excellent introduction to their Googlephobia series, invaluable TLF commenter Richard Bennett succinctly sums up the rap on Google.

There’s no denying that Google has the capacity to do some pretty heinous things with all the sensitive data stored on its servers. But the relevant question isn’t whether Google could do evil, but whether it realistically will. What incentive is there for Google to do anything but keep private data as secure as humanly possible? Sure, Google could earn a nice chunk of change if it were to sell user search queries to the highest bidder. But why would Google put its entire business on the line for a comparatively insignificant short-term gain?

A major privacy breach is Google’s nightmare scenario. If anything happened to cause users to lose trust in Google, they’d go someplace else for email and search. Advertisers would follow suit, causing Google’s stock price to plummet. Google might never be able to recover from a severe privacy fiasco. Obviously, Google is well aware of its vulnerabilities on privacy, which is why Google has incredibly strong safeguards to ensure that sensitive data can’t be uncovered by a rogue product manager with an itchy trigger finger.

Then there’s the liability issue. The multi-billion dollar lawsuits that would ensue were Google to suffer a data breach or an internal leak would deal a serious financial blow to the company, especially because Google’s privacy policy is more than just a comforting statement—it’s legally binding.

We go about our lives everyday with the ever-present risk that companies that we do business with could, in theory, give out our personal details. Comcast could sell its subscribers’ web browsing histories. Bank of America could offer individual financial records for a small fee. AT&T could put its wireless subscribers’ GPS locations online for all to see. But like Google, all of these firms have an overwhelming incentive to not do “bad” things with personal data.

Many users are comfortable enough with Google to use its services frequently without even masking their IP address. And those users who are worried about the small chance that Google might fumble on privacy already have plenty of safeguards that have been discussed in great depth here on TLF. Even if you want to use Google’s services, there are several methods to prevent Google from being able to identify you.

Ultimately, the threat to privacy posed by Google is far less worrisome than the risk of government agencies or hackers doing evil things with our personal information. We should remain vigilant, and call out Google when its practices result in unecessary privacy risks. The growing anti-Google hysteria, however, is seriously overblown.

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