From the earliest days of the Internet, it quickly became clear that user behaviour could be studied and the data mined for a wide range of commercial and other uses. As digital technology evolved, it became increasingly evident that information and knowledge would be hugely important factors for the future development of capitalist economies, and exploring marketing and consumer behaviour online equally so. Early search engines were heralded as welcome and important elements of the Internet, which benefited users by placing all of the information online within the reach of a few keystrokes. However, as the behaviour of Internet service providers, marketing companies, government agencies, and search engine hosts themselves has evolved since those relatively early days of the Internet, the role search engines play in our social world has increased in scope and complexity. Google, the most well-known and successful search engine, evokes ambivalent feelings (Tene 2007, p.1), and while it is loved for its simple interface and easy service, it is increasingly being looked upon with suspicion by privacy advocates. In recent years, concerns have been raised as to the true motivations behind many of the operating methods of the technologies which have become such an established part of modern life. This essay will examine the ways in which the search engine Google acts upon the social world of its users, and will discuss some of the issues implicated in its use.
The Google story, along with that of Facebook, is perhaps one of the most impressive tales of success in the history of the Internet. Its name has become a standard verb used across the world, it’s stock is worth more than General Motors and Disney combined, its staff eat for free, and its employees zip around its Silicon Valley head office on roller skates (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3). Of course, Google’s beginnings were of a much more humble nature. In 1998, Stanford University drop-outs Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded the company, with a mission to “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google, online). Many welcomed its arrival as a “democratisation of information distribution” (Introna & Nissenbaum 2000, p.169) that unlocked the so-called ‘walled gardens’ of websites like AOL. Google changed the future of Internet search engines because it did Internet searching so well . Since then, it has essentially organised every bit of information on the web in more than 100 languages, and it continues to add millions of books, videos, and broadcasts to its searchable database every day (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3).
Google went public in 2004 at $85 per share (Hirst & Harrison 2007, p.328) and grew in value exponentially in the years following, challenging Microsoft’s dominance and shaking up Wall Street (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3). Today, it has more than 50,000 employees in 50 countries and billions of people use its products (Google, online). Its search engine dominates the market, with around 70% of online searches processed through Google (Frommer 2014, online), with its success having been described as being down to “the secret network of computers delivering lightning-fast search results” (Vise & Malseed 2005, p.3). Its range of business interests have hugely increased, and it is now involved in developing self-driving cars and artificial intelligence (Frommer 2014, online).
However, Google’s success and growth has not been without criticism and concern. In 2016, digital advertising revenue grew by 20% in the United States to a record $72.5 billion, with virtually all of this growth attributed to Google and Facebook (Ingram 2017, online). While strong financial growth may suggest success on many levels, the argument exists that if Google is one of the top two interfaces to advertising buyers, they are essentially in control of the market and “every partner they work with is subservient” (Ingram 2017, online). Additionally, it has been argued that the advertising industry is “guiding one of history’s most massive stealth efforts in social profiling” (Turow 2012, p.1). In return for using Google’s search engines, maps, messaging platforms, and other services, for which users pay nothing, users “passively give Google access to a huge amount of information about [themselves], which allows them to target [users] with tailor-made advertising” (Jones 2011, online) – a business model which in brings in dozens of billions of dollars every year.
While Google has become the most well-known and most frequently-used search engine, has achieved iconic status in our social world, and is firmly entrenched in Western culture, there is also a darker side to it (Piper 2008, p.195). Google collects vast amounts of information about its users and “aggregates third party information more effectively than many third world governments” (Piper 2008, p.195). In 2012, Google introduced new ‘privacy’ rules under the guise of “providing better client services” (Gorman 2012, p.1), but it has been argued that there were underhanded reasons for the changes. Gorman (2012, p.1) explains that by “creating comprehensive profiles of users by combining crumbs of data they leave across its services, the firm is betting it can target more online ads at them more accurately”. A large part of Google’s strategy in collecting its users’ data involves making its predictive services more accurate by tailoring potential search results and advertisements to users’ interests and locations (Biersdorfer 2016, online). This is marketed to users as being “designed to personalise the Internet experience for each user”, but, in reality, it is primarily “to optimise the efficiency of online advertising” (Eichenberger 2011, p.1). What a user has searched for, where they were they searched for it, and what they clicked on is saved on its database. Essentially, it has the ability to store your location history, “which is displayed on a map you can see when you are logged into your account” (Biersdorfer 2016, online).
Many scandals involving potential invasion of privacy have arisen from Google’s modes of operation. In 2012, A Wall Street Journal investigation found Google had been tracking the online habits of Apple users through their iPhones, iPads and Apple computers (Colley 2012, p.3). Google used their familiar tactic of claiming the tracking was to improve user experience of the service.
While some users enjoy finding the most relevant or appropriate results based on their search and location history, many more consider it a dangerous invasion of privacy. It has been argued that the technological and statistical information gathered from the new ‘privacy’ rules can be used by groups from marketing companies to governments to support the practice of social discrimination through profiling (Turow 2012, p.3). These new rules allow Google to compete more aggressively with Facebook for its users time and create even more targeted advertising. The website does not allow users to opt out of the new rules, and thus they have no real control over their data. Gorman (2012, p.1) explains that the new rules had the intention of “combining data about users of its various services into single profiles that would help it to better target ads and services at them”, provoking outrage from privacy groups as a result. It is possible to change search settings so records are not kept on the user’s system (even though Google admits it may still store data anonymously), but the site keeps a detailed record of its users search histories and interactions with its search engine by default (Biersdorfer 2016, online).
A prominent result of the struggle or paradox between personalisation and the increasing power of Google is the increased complexity of our media environment over time (Helevais 2013, p.258). The way users of digital technology now consume their news is affected by both the globalisation of networks and individual choice which appears to make it more localised. When news is filtered or chosen, whether directly by the user or by a series of algorithms, consumers of news can live in a social bubble in which they may believe they are receiving a rich variety of information from the world around them, but in reality, what they have clicked on in the past has doomed them to repeat the same habits over and over again.
In 2016, as the European Union was in the midst of overhauling its data protection and copyright legislation, Google, Facebook and other online advertising organisations were part of an investigation into how websites track users for advertising purposes (Murgia & Robinson 2016, online). Head of Policy and Regulatory Affairs at the EU, Yves Schwarzbart, labelled the increasingly advertising-oriented behaviour of the sites as “very concerning” and “putting at risk the entire Internet as we know it” (Murgia & Robinson 2016, online). The primary proposal to arise from the investigation was to offer Internet users the option to opt in to advertising and marketing, rather than automatically including users and them having to seek out ways to opt out. Facebook and Google strongly opposed the investigation’s proposals, arguing that European news media would find it impossible to make the move to fully online services under the suggested user conditions (Murgia & Robinson 2016, online) and the investigation’s proposals did not come to fruition. It seems that, for now, Google and similar sites have the power to continue shaping our social world as they see fit. Gorman (2012, p.1) goes as far as saying that “Google … would have us kowtow to their strictly commercial needs with no respect for our wishes or needs”.
There have been some recorded instances in which Google’s ability to store and sift through the data of everyone who uses its services has been used to affect our social world positively. In 2014, Google alerted the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States when they found evidence of child pornography material in a user’s Gmail – Google’s e-mail service – account. The user was subsequently arrested and charged with several offences (Matteson 2014, online). The majority of public reaction to Google’s actions was positive, with only extreme privacy advocates reacting differently, but still the issue remains of Google having access to every single bit of data that passes through their systems. Other Google products used to fight crime include Google glasses, which are used by police forces in the United States and Dubai, among other countries, to record video from police officers’ points of view. The glasses can be incorporated with face-recognition technology to help police identify offenders (Tomlinson 2014, online). In slightly more outlandish fashion, Google’s Google Earth service has been used to apprehend a murderer, catch a man drowning a dog, locate illegal marijuana plants, and crack down on illegal swimming pools (Google Earth Blog, online).
Just as Google and similar sites are striving to capture as much information about their users as possible, for good or not-so-good reasons, many Google users and businesses have been competing for years to be the first, or as near to first as possible, result in a Google search. An entire industry, known as search engine optimisation (SEO), has been spawned to enable website owners to compete for the top spot on a Google results page. The complex calculations by which results of a search are ranked are known as algorithms, and are closely guarded proprietary information (Pasquale and Bracha 2007, p.33), while Google’s ranking system judges the credibility of a site by how many other sites link to it. However, the more powerful and precise these algorithms are, the greater the number of opportunities for them to be abused. Google’s 2016 update, which included a feature which presents users with real-time results as they type, was marketed as revolutionary new way to find information online, but was almost immediately described as a gift to savvy marketers looking for new opportunities. Donahoe (2016, p.265) described the move as Google “handing many businesses a huge opportunity to clean up if they know what to do”.
While the collection of users’ data has many people concerned for their individual privacy, the commodification of data in huge amounts has lead to the state and private sector use of data mining and predictive analytics. Data mining is the collection of large amounts of potentially useful information to discover meaningful patterns, from which business or other decisions can be made. It is carried out using powerful technological tools which have been the results of long periods of development, and can help governments and organisations focus on the most relevant information in their database. Predictive analysis involves using this information to predict trends and behaviour patterns for future marketing or business purposes. Data collected in large amounts by a range of methods can be used in predictive analysis, from predicting consumer behaviour, sales totals, event outcomes, and many others. Google claims it uses data mining for the purposes of “finding more efficient algorithms for working with massive data sets, developing privacy-preserving methods for classification, or designing new machine learning approaches” (Google 2017, online). At the same time, Google’s data mining methods have been described as “purely to benefit Google” (Miller 2012, online). As Google is a company that makes around $40 billion a year from the data it mines and uses for advertising, it is perhaps difficult to believe the argument that Google does not use data mining directly for its own gain.
Laws about the collection and ability to access big data, and government reactions to Google’s policies, are different around the world. For example, in the Netherlands, collected data can be freely accessed, so Internet users who freely search, or make online posts about, terrorism, fraud, or any other illegal subject they may or may not have been involved in can easily be found. The French data protection agency, the CNIL, however, took action to push Google to make a number of changes to its data mining policies in 2012 (Miller 2012, online). Despite some resistance, it is in Google’s interest to keep expanding into new geographical territories, as studies have shown that doing so can increase potential for data mining. Vaughan and Chen (2014, p.13) found that a Chinese search engine was able to provide much more search data than Google Trends did in a long-term study, as Google simply had a smaller number of users in China.
Despite some resistance to Google’s data mining methods, it has brought them direct success by more indirect methods too. In an age when information is power and links and clicks are everything, other major online businesses and websites want to be included in Google’s searchable data bank. In 2009, Twitter concluded talks with both Google and Microsoft about licensing its tweets for inclusion in search engines as soon as they were published. Such deals could be are worth vast sums of money to Google. Twitter produces billions of tweets daily, and incorporating the data into Google’s bank of searchable data was hugely profitable for both parties (Newstex 2009, online).
Despite many concerns about how and why Google uses data to act upon the social world, the future for the company looks positive. Google has been influencing many aspects of our social world for many years, and will continue to do so for many more. Projects it currently has in development include on-demand package delivery, drone technology, modular smartphone software, and healthcare (Lee 2015, online). However, Google’s primary service, and its main focus, will always be its search engine. The continuing evolution of the struggle between the requirement to create market value from collection of personal information and the rights and powers of individual consumers will be interesting. Google’s continued success will not only have us increasingly asking ourselves, with all this digital information to hand, what will happen to physical libraries (Giustini 2005, p.331), but what will happen to the way in which we access the information we need to make decisions about the world. Is Google’s persistent struggle to provide its users with the familiar doom them to living in world lacking in variety and challenge?
In conclusion, it can be said that Google’s influence on our social world is colossal and is unlikely to change in the near future, given its entrenched position in our lives. The simple truth is Google is such a major player in the online advertising market that it can, in many ways, do almost whatever they like, without having to answer to almost anyone. It not only controls a lot of what information we see, but uses our data to make predictions which have real-world outcomes on a plethora of macro levels. Users of their services have virtually no say in the matter of how their data is collected and used, despite resistance from many parts of the world at many levels, including governmental. Moving forward, it could be beneficial for users of Google’s many online services, for their safety, to be educated on the dangers of web usage and data collection. This, however, is not in the company’s interests to do, so is unlikely to occur with any real enthusiasm. Google will continue to influence our social world for the foreseeable future.
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