Sergey Brin's dilemma

Sergey Brin's dilemma

Summary: Sergey Brin warns about the danger of government monitoring but everything that Google does to improve Internet commerce could be used to pursue political dissent.


Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, wrote that his comments about Internet freedom made to The Guardian Newspaper needed some clarification.

He begins by re-stating his original premise: "I believe the internet has been one of the greatest forces for good in the world over the past quarter century."

He then goes on to say:

Today, the primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent. This has been far more effective than I ever imagined possible across a number of nations.

Foremski's Take: The problem with the Internet is that the same methods that a company such as Google uses to monitor its users for clues about what they might purchase next, so it can show relevant ads, can just as easily be used by governments to monitor its citizens for political and oppressive purposes.

"Big Brother" is already here, it's just masquerading as "Big Sales Assistant."

The dilemma Google faces is that every bit of progress the company makes in improving the efficiency of the commercial Internet, and thereby improving its profits, unavoidably improves the potential efficiency of governments to exploit those advances for potentially harmful purposes. The technologies and methodologies are both identical as a process.

Governments can simply buy data "off-the-shelf" from Google, and other companies, and instead of using it for commercial reasons such as selling diapers, use it to uncover and track networks of political dissent.

Even easier, governments can force Google to give it data by court order, or passage of laws.

But there are solutions that would greatly hamper any government's ability to force Google, or other Internet companies, to provide them with data. The data could be "laundered" and anonymized to a far greater degree than is currently done.

Anonymized data still has commercial value, companies don't need to know "Joe Smith" -- the name means nothing, it's user behavior that counts, and they could still sell Mr Smith a new TV without knowing his name. Governments need names in order to persecute and prosecute dissidents.

While it is theoretically possible to de-anonymize a dataset by cross-mapping against other datasets -- it's not a trivial problem and it would certainly limit what an oppressive government could do.

Yet, despite his concern about people's freedom and the government monitoring of Internet users, which Mr Brin describes as "dangerous," Google has made itself into a one-stop data warehouse housing the single largest collection of identifiable data about nearly every Internet user that ever lived. Why subpoena 50 companies when one will do?

Google has become the single largest potential storehouse of data about political dissent yet it has done little to make sure that data can't be used for harmful purposes.

It's paradoxical that the US government has fined Google several times for collecting private data when it's precisely that type of data that would be useful to an oppressive government.

There are other inconsistencies in what it says and does. Google found a way around South Korea's law that mandates Internet companies collect the real names of users posting comments. Google did this because of concerns about the safety of it's S. Korean users.

Yet Google insists people use real names for its G+ service, and it has aggregated previously fragmented user data into one, by implementing a unified privacy policy.

How does Mr Brin explain the huge contradiction in his public warnings and Google's actions in pursuit of its business objectives?

One possible explanation is that there is a deep split on such issues within Google, as there was over its China business. Mr Brin was firmly against Google's move into China, on which he eventually prevailed, resulting in a retreat from the search market in that country

Maybe Mr Brin doesn't speak for Google but for himself? In which case his public hand wringing is worth little compared with what he could do within the company. He could harness Google's army of braniacs to develop new online technologies that could thwart government abuses while at the same time improve commercial applications.

There's lots Google could do that would protect all Internet users from being harmed by dangerous elements within any government, or any other organized group.

"Do no evil" is a wonderful motto but it's meaningless if Google allows others to use it for evil.

Topics: Government US, Browser, Google, Government

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  • Google does what benefits Google

    if it helps the end user in the process, that is good. If it hurts the end user in the process, so be it.
    Tim Cook
  • Hmmmm

    So Google is gathering a ton of information on us....and that's the governments fault?
  • This article is uninformed...

    First, the article says "Governments can simply buy data 'off-the-shelf' from Google"... no, they can't. Google does not sell the data. They might sell access to anonymized data, but they don't sell user data. Why would they sell the cow when they can sell the milk instead? This is what they do. They USE the data to show ads, then companies can pay money to have their ads featured, but they can't get direct access to this data or else they'd just run off with it or use it to compete with Google.

    Next, the article says "it has done little to make sure that data can???t be used for harmful purposes." Which is untrue. There have been plenty of times where governments have asked Google for information and they have been unwilling to give up the info, considering the request to be too broad. They will give up information according to the laws and on a case-by-case basis, but they're very intentional about this. Furthermore, by offering secure search (well, really, secure everything) they have given people the ability to keep even their searches protected from eavesdropping, within reason.

    Lastly, the article says "How does Mr Brin explain the huge contradiction in his public warnings and Google???s actions in pursuit of its business objectives?" It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a Google engineer to figure this out. If you're in a country that cracks down on dissent and you plan on starting a revolution, DON'T LOGIN WITH YOUR REAL-NAME GOOGLE+ ACCOUNT. It's that simple.

    Google+ is supposed to be a way for people to identify who they are, not a way for people to be anonymous and to hide from the government. Why is it that by not creating tools to help people overthrow a government, Google is somehow blamed for PREVENTING people from overthrowing a government? Google isn't the entire Internet, you know. There are plenty of tools that are useful for this (Facebook, Twitter, etc...) Even Google+ could be used by creating a Google+ PAGE. A Google+ PAGE doesn't have the same "real name" restrictions, isn't necessarily tied back publicly to the owning Google+ account, but can otherwise be used just like any regular Google+ account.

    So, all in all, this article is terrible misinformed.
  • The problem is...

    ...just about any technological advance one can think of can be used for wrong purposes, so in the end, the only thing that has ever prevented evil from prevailing is the willingness of good people to follow their consciences.
    John L. Ries
  • Apples and Oranges

    Governments want control at the point we have come to call the ISP, although portable wi-fi hotspots and their mesh networks will blur the definition of an ISP.

    Websites on the other hand, are optional. You can have free speech without facebook or google. But then there should also be competition between social networks for the trust of anonymity seekers, instead of the current trend toward automating the process of deciding when to unmask their customers, essentially handing that power over to government, for little more than a few dollars each.
    Annie O