Review of Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google, Inc., by Scott Cleland with Ira Brodsky, Telescope Books, St. Louis, Missouri, 2011, ISBN-10: 0980038324, $28.95, 329 pages.
Even paranoiacs have real enemies, goes the adage. I’m inclined to agree, especially after reading Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google, Inc., by Scott Cleland with Ira Brodsky.
The book adds heft to a shelf increasingly freighted with cautionary volumes about the perils the Internet poses to individual privacy, among other concerns. The book, while at times heavy-handed, details the authors’ views that Google tramples individual privacy, violates intellectual property rights, and asserts undoe if not illegal influence on both political and economic processes.
Internet privacy has become a hot-button issue in Washington, and featured as the issue du jour of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law when Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) conducted its May 10 inaugural hearing, titled “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy.”
Additionally, legislators are scrambling to introduce Internet privacy laws, including the “Do Not Track Online Act of 2011,” by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and the “Data Accountability and Trust Act” (HR 1707), by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).
Multiple Threats to Privacy
Security violations affecting personal information are plentiful, including Apple’s iOS4 operating system collecting and storing users’ location information even when they tried to turn off location services, the Google Buzz social networking site sharing supposedly secure information upon its launch in 2010, and the hacking of 70 million Sony Playstation users’ credit-card information in April.
In Search & Destroy, however, Cleland and Brodsky focus on Google as the biggest threat to privacy. The two writers possess a treasure trove of evidence amassed by Cleland’s extensive research into the information technology monolith for the two Web sites he publishes: GoogleMonitor.com and Googleopoly.net, plus his former stint as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Information and Communication Policy, where he thrice testified before Congress regarding Google.
Cleland is joined in his jihad against Google by Brodsky, a researcher, author, and publisher of dozens of reports on new technologies and markets.
‘Don’t Be Evil’
Cleland and Brodsky’s book (excerpted on page 16 of this issue of Infotech & Telecom News) is essentially a fever dream in which Google’s squishy motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” metamorphosizes, Kafkaesque, into a cockroach scuttling through the nooks and crannies of every aspect of contemporary society with the express goals of worldwide domination and even mind control to the extent it can impact economic markets and political elections.
I find some of Cleland and Brodsky’s cavils a bit farfetched. Market dominance, if predicated simply on providing consumers services and devices they desire more than competitors’ products, isn’t necessarily monopolistic, lacking in Judeo-Christian values, or “evil.”
That’s the logical fallacy most prevalent in Search & Destroy: the authors find so much distasteful about Google’s ubiquity online and elsewhere, they resort to castigating everything about the company regardless of whether available evidence supports it.
One avenue they don’t explore, for example, is how best to reconcile responsible data mining for targeted advertising; instead they concentrate on how to prevent Google from doing it altogether. Left unmentioned is the tremendous benefits of tracking information, including saving time for customers seeking specific information based on their individual preferences and purchase histories, the billions of dollars thereby generated for companies employing such information, and how resulting advertising revenues keep Internet use affordable.
Privacy and Search Rankings
It is when Cleland and Brodsky address privacy issues and search engine rankings that they make their most compelling arguments.
As noted above, Google possesses a nearly infinite ability to collect information from users of its email, search engine, and social networking utilities. An extremely detailed profile of any user could be compiled easily. One doesn’t have to be a staunch privacy advocate to find this ability kind of creepy. Nor does one need to be a criminal to see the potential negative repercussions of all this information if law-enforcement agencies subpoena those nasty emails you wrote but didn’t send to your former girlfriend 10 or 15 years ago.
Likewise, the authors correctly call into question the “objective” algorithms governing Google’s search engine rankings. Google “Santorum,” for example, and you’ll find the top two entries are for a sexual neologism rather than a prominent Pennsylvania Republican politician. Imagine the possibilities—and the justified uproar—if the system were similarly gamed such that every Google search for “Obama” immediately highlighted something perceived as crude and offensive.
That’s small potatoes compared to what could result from manipulating online searches during a hotly contested election year, especially when Google CEO Eric Schmidt has boasted publicly of his company’s ability to impact the public square: “We’re at a point now in technology where we really can change the entire political discourse if we want to.”
While hardly definitive—much of what is explored between its covers remains speculative in 2011—Search & Destroy may serve yet as one of the first and most prescient salvos against what seems likely to be the world’s biggest information enterprise for the foreseeable future.
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.