most people, I like Google. My browser opens to Google’s news
page; I do dozens of Google searches every day. I trust Google,
I like the company’s goal of accumulating all of the world’s
knowledge for easy access by anybody, and if Google’s making
any money off of me, it sure isn’t coming directly out of
my pocket. I’m in favor of Google’s library project, where
it’s digitizing the world’s great libraries; I love its recently
acquired troublemaker, YouTube.
At the same time, there’s a lot about Google that’s starting
to scare the bejesus out of me. The company’s mission statement
says things like, “You can make money without doing evil.”
That’s all well and good; I suppose you can. But there’s an
inherent conflict between that statement and any corporation’s
fundamental, overarching goal of maximizing its shareholders’
wealth. Mission statements are nice, but corporations have
no souls, no consciences. They’re money-making machines, and
only as altruistic as their boards, acting for the sole benefit
of shareholders, allow.
And even if the corporate mission stays pure, the goal of
accumulated information is starting to run smack into our
traditional ideas of personal privacy. If Google can know
everything and post it on the Web, it can know and post everything
For instance, Google holds on to your search information.
Ostensibly, this information is used to refine its search
engines, to help direct targeted advertising (which is one
reason it looks free to the rest of us), and to prevent fraud
and abuse. It’s also held in response to increasing governmental
pressure for search engines to retain such information for
purposes of “data-mining” or, at the very least, something
to look at pursuant to a search warrant—i.e., the Feds’ snooping
on you, on the off chance you’re thinking about blowing up
a bridge or something.
If you use Gmail (I don’t, and won’t), then Google has all
your emails. If you use all the new on-line apps, where you
can do all your word processing, spreadsheets, and everything
else using Google servers instead of your own computer, Google
has everything you generate. And now Google is acquiring a
company called DoubleClick, the cookie generator that for
years has been tracking your online activities and selling
that info to advertisers. So Google will have a mass of information
about not only what you’re done with Google, but with everybody
If this sounds scary, it’s because it is scary. Think
about what a profile of your Internet browsing history says
about you. Now think about what might happen if that information
winds up in the hands of strangers. Now do the same with your
e-mails, IMs, and most anything else you do on your computer.
Gather all this up in one place, and you have not only a lot
of your stuff, but a remarkably accurate roadmap of your brain.
And all this stuff is one bullet-proof subpoena or one killer
hack or hostile corporate takeover away from seeing the light
of day. Yikes is right.
Various theorists observe blithely that traditional notions
of privacy are going to have to give way to technological
advances, and people are just going to have to get accustomed
to it. But it seems to me that people ought to know what they’re
giving away before it’s gone, and of course that’s just not
happening. It’s possible that you’re reading this and thinking
“Holy moley,” (or perhaps something a little more colorful)
because you’re hearing about this for the first time in plain
English. And the reason for that is because Paris Hilton’s
imprisonment and Hillary’s new campaign song are more important
than your privacy, at least as far as the media’s concerned.
Privacy has always been a difficult subject with people. The
combination of “I haven’t got anything to hide” and the notion
that privacy is a shield for illegal or at least unseemly
behavior always rattles the gates of your right to be you,
without surveillance or interference. And, obviously, every
time the Department of Homeland Security announces that it
has heroically snared some hapless losers who think they’re
gonna pose as pizza-boys and shoot up an Army base, everybody
thanks their lucky stars we’re all being monitored.
Throw into the mix, Bush, Gonzalez, and especially Roberts,
Alito, and Scalia, and it’s enough to scare you off the Internet
entirely. But that’s not gonna happen, because the Internet
has become as important to our basic ability to function as
Maybe it’s time to reread Huxley and Orwell, to pay attention,
and start watching the watchers. If only we weren’t all so
And you really wanna freak? Go to Google Maps, zoom
in on a big city, and click on a street. Go ahead. Maybe you’ll
see somebody you know.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law
at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the
Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can
be found at www.paul rapp.com. Comments about this article
can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.