RARELY if ever has a company risen so fast in so many ways as Google, the world’s most popular search engine. This is true by just about any measure: the growth in its market value and revenues; the number of people clicking in search of news, the nearest pizza parlour or a satellite image of their neighbour’s garden; the volume of its advertisers; or the number of its lawyers and lobbyists.
Such an ascent is enough to evoke concerns—both paranoid and justified. The list of constituencies that hate or fear Google grows by the week. Television networks, book publishers and newspaper owners feel that Google has grown by using their content without paying for it. Telecoms firms such as America’s AT&T and Verizon are miffed that Google prospers, in their eyes, by free-riding on the bandwidth that they provide; and it is about to bid against them in a forthcoming auction for radio spectrum. Many small firms hate Google because they relied on exploiting its search formulas to win prime positions in its rankings, but dropped to the internet’s equivalent of Hades after Google tweaked these algorithms.
And now come the politicians. Libertarians dislike Google’s deal with China’s censors. Conservatives moan about its uncensored videos. But the big new fear is to do with the privacy of its users. Google’s business model (see article) assumes that people will entrust it with ever more information about their lives, to be stored in the company’s “cloud” of remote computers. These data begin with the logs of a user’s searches (in effect, a record of his interests) and his responses to advertisements. Often they extend to the user’s e-mail, calendar, contacts, documents, spreadsheets, photos and videos. They could soon include even the user’s medical records and precise location (determined from his mobile phone).