Patrice Riemens on Thu, 12 Mar 2009 08:51:34 -0400 (EDT)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective: The Dark Side of Google (Chapter 1, Second Part)

Dear Nettimers again,

And a few more additions...

So the "Light and Shadows" are out again, and it's definitely "The Dark
Side..." . Damn commercial publishing houses! F. also didn't inform
Ippolita very much about the French translation, which they received only
once it was completed. As you may have noticed, there are a few problems  
with it, and they promise to grow worse when I'll check it out with the 
Italian original (not doing that presently, to get some speed, so feel    
free to point to abominable divergences! ;-)

Btw, I am not best pleased to be called 'someone' ... by anyone.    
And finaly, credit to whom credit is due: I wouldn't have heard of the
Ippolita Collective hadn't I been attended to them by Geert Lovink.

Cheers, patrizio and Diiiinooos!


NB this book and translation are published under Creative Commons license 
(Attribution, Non Commercial, Share Alike).
Commercial distribution requires the authorisation of the copyright 
Ippolita Collective and Feltrinelli Editore, Milano (.it) 

Ippolita Collective

The Dark Side of Google (continued)

Chapter 1. The History of Search (Engines)
(continued from part one)

Style, Form, and Services Overflow ...

For Google begin 2000 meant most of its competitors had gone South, and 
the times were ripe for a new round of innovations, starting with 
proposing users a bevy of new services [*N20]

Every new service constitute a piece of a complex, constantly re(di)fined 
mosaic, branching out to each and every domain of IT. At the time of 
writing [end 2006/ begin 2007 -TR], Google offered 17 different types of 
searches in data-banks of images, blogs, notes, books, maps, videos, 
financial services, etc. But it can also search and retrieve documents 
into a user's own computer. And there are many more services, present and 
to come. Two are specifically geared to application development and new 
projects under elaboration in Google's labs. There also 6 communication 
enabling services: Google Mail, VoIP telephony, instant messaging, 
discussion groups ('Google-groups'), picture-sharing, and translation 
services. Three services are for mobile devices (GSMs, PDAs, etc.). And 
finally, there is another service about software suggested by Google. And 
the number of services keeps adding up...

Even the most dull-witted user can easily grasp the reach and power of 
these instruments. By now, it is possible to key in a postal address or a 
phone number, and Google will instantly disclose all you need to know in 
order to contact a person or localise an object. One can also save one's 
search preferences, making the repeated use of the search engine a 
breathtakingly smooth experience. A typing error in the search query is 
promptly corrected by a highly advanced spell-checker, which is also able 
to 'learn' incrementally along the search process.

In 2001 Google launched "Google Images", a dedicated search engine which 
in just a few weeks became the most sought after resource for 
do-it-yourself graphic production and has become one of the Web's biggest 
image banks. At the same time, Google also bought up, and hence 
the Usenet archives, which constitute, with over 650 million posts on 
various newsgroups, a kind of "historic memory" of the Internet in its 
pre-World Wide Web days, when such discussion groups were the life-blood 
of the Net. By April 2001, Usenet got re-christened "Google-groups" with a 
new, pleasant interface making it easy to follow the more elaborate, edgy 
discussion threads.

>From 2001 onwards new services followed each other in quick succession, or 
were upgraded without any apparent economic purpose or immediate financial 
return, as if Brin and page were thrilled to show that a sheer 
inexhaustible data retention center could also bring about next to any 
technological feat one could dream about. The most illustrious instance of 
this is probably "Google Map" [Google Earth?] a behemoth repository 
mapping the Earth {in detail}, with some maps of the Moon, Mars {and the 
Oceanic depths -TR}  thrown in for good measure. Google Earth is a freely 
downloadable software suite enabling you to visualise by way of satellite 
images parts, or details, or at least a photographic rendering of any 
surface of the Globe. And the "Google Directory" is home to the contents 
of a collective of human agents organised within a collaborative 
and decentralised system of 'open publishing', that has been present on 
the Google home page for ages, but now sports  an increasingly 
sophisticated graphic design.

"Google News" saw the light in 2005, making Google's humongous data-bases 
available to journalistic work. GMail started the same year, offering each 
user 1 gigabyte of personal storage. Beta-launched on invitation-only 
basis, it immediately created a network of personal linkages completely 
internal to Planet Google. Privacy nay-sayers were promptly silenced with 
the somewhat cranky argument that GMail was "an outstanding product", that 
"its advantages far out-weight the doubts it may raise", and that "it's 
bound to get ever better with time". Any user of GMail is however liable 
to be controlled by Google in its use of the service, since the enormous 
storage space made available is likely to incite her to leave all her mail 
messages on its servers. And since usage of the service was spreading by 
way on invites already registered users could freely extent in her circle, 
Google obtained crucial information on individual networks of friends and 
acquaintances. With other words, the archetype of an intrusive feature 
geared towards 'data-mining'. 

And then came the "Google Scholar" project, a universities-oriented search 
engine still in 'beta-testing' mode [2006], which enables to retrieve 
academic literature, but also articles submitted to reviews, working 
papers, M.A. and PhD theses, university publications, reprints, table of 
contents, bibliographies, reports, and reviews published across all 
sectors of scientific/ academic research. And then we have Google Library, 
whose ambition is to make available on line *all* books in digital format, 
by going into agreements with libraries and even interested publishers 
world-wide, and scan publications into e-books. Only the Google data 
center could make into reality the dream of a global digital library, 
accessible from Google pages. But this dream is meeting fierce opposition 
from the side of a large part of US publishers who are members of the AAP 
(American Association of Publishers). They fear a meltdown of their 
profits. In 2005 AAP demanded the digitization of those works still under 
copyright to be frozen for six month, pending further, and comprehensive, 
explanation from Google's on its 'Library' project. Yet, despite 
appearances, and copyright owners opposition, this initiative of Google 
does not have the free circulation of knowledge as its aim. It is more 
about a shift in the monopoly to information, which in this scheme would 
be transferred from a handful of publishers to the one and only Google. 
Like in all dreams, there is a flaw: a solitary, private entity, named 
Google, is going to decide what constitutes the stock of collective 
information, by making the same available through proprietary formats. The 
Open Content Alliance was started in direct reaction to this project, and 
it is supported by the Internet Archive, a non-profit, and by Yahoo! Its 
objective is to make as much material as possible totally accessible, 
through open formats.

Parallel to its opening new services, Google showed a remarkable ability 
to milk the relational economy to the max, made possible by a keen 
utilisation of the commercial data it indexes.

AdSense, launched in 2004, offers site owners the possibility to host 
certain commercial links on their site, as suggested by Google on basis of 
the site's subject and particular keywords. Revenues accruing from such 
links are shared between Google and the owners of the participating sites. 
The innovation there lies in monetizing the trust the site's users network 
put in it. Google is then no longer on the Google site only, but 
everywhere where the Google 'window' is welcomed, and that unobtrusive 
little space promises to be always full of accurate and interesting data, 
such as befits Google, even if these data bits are now commercial 
suggestions. AdSense is thus factually the materialisation of a "Google 
network", a specific network meant to cross-link users data with their 
interrelationships for the benefit of advertisers. According to Google, 
AdSense is the network of "sites and products partnering with Google to 
put targeted AdWords advertisements on a site or a product[*N21]." 
Obviously the AdSense system is also part and parcel of the "Google 

And obviously, once you have put such a network in place, revenue must be 
extracted. We are still in 2005, and Google now experiments with a 'rerun' 
of the CPM model on the AdSense platform, following a 'site-by-site 
targeting' model. Advertising will now again 'pay for eyeballs', but this 
time not according to number of clicks on their banners but as a package 
deal sold through an auction process. Advertisers are able to choose in 
detail the profile of their prospective viewers: language, geographical 
area, {issues of interest}, etc. But moreover, such views will only happen 
within the 'Google network'. This appeals mostly to those who want to sell 
a brand rather than a product, i.e. those vendors favouring indirect 
marketing strategies. Here, 'brand awareness' is the name of the game, 
rather than selling specific products to key-word selected potential 
buyers such as is the case with the CPC advertising model.

This {virtuous, or hellish,} circle linking up the value management of its 
own immaterial products with the organisation of the labour force, and the 
framework of project development, is perfectly attuned to the modular 
building blocks system upon which the entrepreneurial philosophy of the 
firm Google is based. An endless growth is the precondition for the system 
not to flounder. The number of users searching with Google and hence trust 
their data unto it must increase ceaselessly in order for the advertisers 
peddling their wares in the "Google network" to keep growing alongside. 
There must be a continuous launch of new services, of new machines to keep 
track of it all, of new employees to maintain, improve, and invent them, 
of new users to make use of them, and of new advertisers to extract a 
profit from, {and, and, and ...] Every new 'piece'of the system is being 
introduced as a new module, in an endless cycle: ever growing stockpiles 
of data, brains, users, and of their respective data, increasing quality 
of the handling of these data, in the dealing with employees, in the 
interaction with users and the management of their data archived in 
Google's data centers. And this always under the imperative of speed and 
further development.

Brin and Page don't hide where their ambitions lie. "Why would we let our 
employees start their own firms only to buy them up later on when we can 
pay them to stay with us, and do what they would have done in any case?" 
The "Googleplex" [*N22], Google's operational Head Quarters in Mountain 
View, California, is a kind of university campus where people are pampered 
all the time. Employees are even given one day off a week to work on their 
own projects, which are then shown to the "Google Duos", who offer both 
money and the support of the firm to the most promising talents, as reward 
for their efforts. 

Google, the Good Giant, goes IPO ...

"Don't be evil" or you can do anything you want provided you're not 
naughty: thus is the motto of Google's "capitalism with a human 
face"[*N23]. But already, quite a number of cracks are showing up in this 
'being Good' PR image: lawsuits galore, suggestions of fraud, sites being 
blacked-out, etc.[*N24] ...

In 2002 Google had 1000 employees on its payroll and owned in excess of 
10.000 computers [servers?]. Its service indexed over 4 billion documents 
and its net profits (somewhat reluctantly disclosed) amounted to close to 
US$ 185 million. Given such a size, investors were starting to demand more 
transparency, more control, and a more credible business profile. It's 
allright to have two brilliant - if eccentric - engineers at the helm, but 
please hire also a general manager with a proven development track record!

After a few less than felicitous get togethers and some intemperate public 
statements, the role of CEO of Google Inc. finally devolved to Eric 
Schmidt (who was already a top dog at Sun Microsytems and then Novell). 
The two young prodigies keep taking pot shot decisions but this strategic 
managerial move soon proved to be a sound economic choice. Schmidt's 
arrival actually coincided with the first semester that the firm was in 
the black,  demonstrating herewith that it has succeeded in making its 
products billable. 

Page and Brin had postponed as long as they could the moment their company 
needed to go public, as they feared they would be forced to go on record 
regarding their business perspectives and profit expectations and that 
this would make their life less fun. It would also have made Google a much 
more open book, and presented its competitors on the market with sticks to 
beat it with. 

But after the introduction of AdSense in 2004, and despite Page's 
pronouncements to the effect that "Google is not your run of the mill 
company, and has no intention to become one", the colossus became to all 
intent and purposes precisely that: an all-American publicly traded 

Just before the IPO, Yahoo! and other competitors lodged scores of 
complaints against Google, claiming copyrights and patents infringements 
with the aim to ruin the firm's reputation even before it has sold its 
first share. 

Wall Street was then on the verge of lowering the initial floor price for 
the bid in view of the encountered difficulties, but Brin and Page managed 
to bury the biggest lawsuit, the one with Yahoo! by paying Filo and Yang a 
compensation in Google shares and settling the different regarding 
patents. Upon which the duo, against the Stock exchange's best advice, 
proceeded with the IPO, in the midst of August, and with a US$ 20 
reduction of the share price.

Yet within a day of trading,  Google shares lifted from their US$ 85 
launch price to US$ 100, leveraging a cool US$ 1,5 billion of paper profit 
in the process. One year later Google shares were quoted at US$ 400, or a 
300% increase in value. Google Inc. appeared to be surfing the wave in a 
marvellous world where nobody is bad, everybody wins, and evil simply does 
not occur. Granted, with such figures even a small downturn in share 
prices means millions of Dollars going up in smoke, as happened in March 
2006 when Google lost seven percentage points. Google is now a giant 
amongst the giants on the world's stock markets, and if it ever sneezes, 
many risk catching a cold with it. 

Google Inc. or the Monopoly on Search

In October 2004, Brin and Page were flying their company jet when they 
learned that AOL (America On Line, the biggest US Internet access 
provider) had just closed a deal with Yahoo! to incorporate its search 
engine into their service. The youthful entrepreneurs immediately ordered 
a change of course, flew to London, and managed to prevail on AOL to shred 
the contract they just had signed and opt for a sweetheart deal Google, to 
the tune of a cool 50 million US$.  It's not exactly what you would call 
the gentle and open approach you would expect from the "good giant", but 
hey, business is business, even for the two nice guys research scientists 
from Mountain View!

In the meanwhile, Google's profits have grown by a multiplier of 4000 in 
the course of a mere 5 years, making it the closest direct competitor to 
Microsoft and Yahoo!, and this not only in terms of stock market 
capitalisation, but foremost in terms of popularity and hence of cultural 
domination of the consumer's mind. Millions of users are now using Google 
as their starting page when they go on the web. And they trust the results 
they get through the tools developed in Mountain View. Today Google's name 
is uttered in the same breath as the Web or even the Internet. The 
Californian search engine scores best when it comes to milk the relational 
network of its users and extract every cent possible out of millions small 
advertisers, so much so that for 2005, available data suggest an  income 
in the range of 6 Billion Dollars on advertising products (whereas 
estimates for Yahoo!'s similar activities amount to US$ 4,6 bn).

The first swamp Google got bogged in had to do with complaints that its 
searches were conflicting with the (US) legislation on trademarks. 
Symptomatic were the cases of Geico and American Blind & Wallpaper Factory 
[& More ?] vs Google[*N25]. In both cases the complainants alleged that 
Google's AdWords service was illegally selling trademarked name-words. The 
tricky question was whether complainants could prevent Google from making 
appear their competitor's links when users would query on terms like 
'geico', 'american blind', or 'american wallpaper'. Would a court follow 
that argument, then Google's and its partners' would face a severe drop in 
their revenues, since any owner of a trademark could deny its use by 
AdWords, and sue Google if it ever did. In France, {luxury goods firm} 
Louis Vuiton went to court on this and won. Google's answer is that if any 
tort occurs, it is the responsibility of announcers themselves and not of 
Google, since its role is merely that of a neutral carrier, and that 
besides, "attempts to limit the sale of trademarked terms amount to a 
denial of the freedom of expression". Sounds like making good sense - for 
Google at least. [? intp. by TR]

however, Mountain View's giant itself falls foul on the freedom of 
expression issue it argued against complaining firms, where it breaches 
the trust many users have given it in a matter that constitutes one of the 
most important sources of revenues. Google has always shielded behind the 
argument that the actualisation process of of its search algorithms and 
the objectivity of the workings of its machine were proof that query 
returns were beyond any kind of manipulation. But then, just before the 
American Blind case went to court, it had decided to withdraw a number of 
AdWords that had been purchased by Oceana, an activist group [*N26]. 
Oceana's 'mistake' had been to publish an environmentally motivated 
critique of the operations of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, itself a major 
Google investor. This could be retrieved when searching for the 
{'AdWorded'} terms 'cruise vacation' or 'cruise ship', keywords users 
would normally use to look for information about cruise holidays or 
associated activities. Google's official statement was that being a 
neutral medium, it could not condone any propaganda campaign deemed to be 
detrimental to the good name of other enterprises. Obviously, in such 
cases, freedom of expression is no longer a paramount concern.

To make things even weirder, on the very day the San Jose District Court 
was in session on the American Blind case, Google's search results in that 
very district were mysteriously at variance with results obtained in any 
other part of the world! For the first attested time, Google was caught 
manipulating search results with an other aim than to return "the best 
possible answer to a query". The fact that the court ruled in favor of 
Google in the Geico case (which was analogous to the American Blind one) 
does little to detract from this unsavoury episode.

The most embarrassing and best known case till now pertains to Google 
entrance into the Chinese market. In order to penetrate this fast-growing 
[potentially immense} market, google for the first time, publicly abode by 
a demand for censorship, making sites deemed illegal by Beijing 
authorities inaccessible to searches from out the Chinese territory. A 
Harvard study in 2002 had already shown that Google was blacking out 113 
sites in its French and German language versions (Google.DE and 
Google.FR). Google confirmed the facts, but argued that these pages had 
only be withdrawn on request of local government agencies and police 
authorities, and only after a careful analysis of their contents. Many 
sites were racism-oriented, others were informed by religious fanaticism. 
Someone then raked up a controversy, stating that Google's much vaunted 
transparency was crumbling and that users should be made aware of the 
existence of a  'hidden censorship'. Others countered that Google was not 
to blame, but rather the law system in particular jurisdictions where you 
could get sued merely for the providing a link {to an incriminated site} 
on your page. In such cases, it is natural that Google chooses to avoid 
legal consequences by withdrawing links after assessing the risks on 
individual basis. It should noted, while we are at it, that the issue of 
the 'right to link' is going to be a major bone of contention within the 
issue of digital liberties at large: who decides what is legitimate 
censorship? An umpteenth 'Authority'? Or an international body? Or will it 
be 'might is right'? In a market economy, that amounts to the right of the 
party that pays the most, or carries most weight. Or will local, usually 
religious, fundamentalists have the last word, who black-mail with 
reprisals every time a 'subversive' site runs foul of their particular 
world-view? This problem is as far-reaching as the issue of freedom of 
expression itself, and obviously cannot be resolved in a court room. 
Emotions ran high in the Chinese case, because the censorship bid came 
from a government. Yet Brin and Page were too focused on the potential of 
a market representing a quarter of the world population to backtrack, 
despite this massive scale-up of the issue at stake.

For Google, the world will fast become a gigantic index in which a perfect 
correlation will obtain between digital resources and ambient reality. 
Each and every index will become computable by an algorithm and presented 
as a search result in the most convenient manner. And Google will be in 
pole position to be the instrument that shall maintain that index.

But, quite aside from the obvious observation that digital and real worlds 
do not necessarily coincide, even they are very much intertwined, and that 
not even from a technical point of view. The perfect algorithm simply does 
not exist. It is simply not possible to retrieve *all* informations that 
exits on-line. Also, nothing that is in the technological domain can be 
considered really neutral, especially not if it pertains to real-world 
data of on line individuals. 

Stemming from the partnership that are likely to be entered upon, and of 
the technological convergence coming every day nearer, a new direction 
appears to emerge, and Goog;e's 'vision' is forcing it upon us as the one 
and only access point, and management and mediation of digital data. 
Google's dystopia as Big Brother wannabee becomes more precise, and is bot 
dangerous and fascinating, as every historic power struggle: the Web is 
the new stage for a fierce competition to establish the new standard of 
communication. A standard that, paradoxically, is "personalised", with 
offers and services that are geared towards the users' individual needs 
and tastes. for a few years now, the keyword has been "mass 
personalisation". An oxymoron for sure, but one that comes loaded with the 
importance of the game, and which represents a paradigm shift, away from 
mass production consumerism towards a personalised one, sold to us as 
"freedom of choice". As for us, beyond rhetorical platitudes, we could 
find a response to this by simply making different choices: the question 
is not whether or not to use Google and its services, but to choose other 
ways to put {our personal} information on the Internet, and to learn how 
to link them up in a new fashion, making for more innovative and 
interesting trajectories for each one of us [*N28].

Since a number of years, Google has been learning to its own costs (and 
those of its users, of course) that innocence does not really belong to 
this world, and even less to the world of business, that total goodness 
amounts to stupidity in general, and more particularly so for a firm whose 
main goal is to make a profit, and that finally, neutrality is a very 
uphill road when war is raging between {competing} search engines. And at 
this juncture it may be recalled that those nations that are traditionally 
neutral, like Switzerland, are also traditionally militarised to the core. 
And so we can see which kind of 'good' weapons Google has been using to 
achieve the status of a world class phenomenon. 

[END of Chapter 1]

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:

The Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore
The Tactical Technology Collective, Bangalore Office
Visthar, Dodda Gubbi post, Kothanyur-Bangalore 

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