Arms trade? Drug cartels? Now? Bring it on, Google

After a Huffington Post panel discussion on Friday about Google's forays into policy and law enforcement, I spent the weekend thinking about Google's giant role in our lives.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Last Friday, I got an email from HuffPost Live, the Huffington Post's new live broadcast platform, asking if I could participate in a panel discussion on Google and its increasing role in things "not search", ranging from tracking the arms trade around the world to its overall dominance in our Internet lives. The question was, is Google growing in influence faster than our government can keep up and is it stepping into places it shouldn't? More to the point, does Google need regulation and how much are we at risk because of Google's influence?

You can check out the discussion here (ironically, conducted via a Google+ Hangout).


This panel discussion was particularly in response to Google's recent visualization of the worldwide small arms trade. Although this is, in part, a flashy, headline-grabbing showcase for Google's data visualization and web-based graphics technologies (Google has a page devoted to "Chrome Experiments", subtitled "Not your mother's JavaScript", of which the arms trade visualization is a part), it's also part of a larger effort at Google to influence policy and create change in the world through technology.

Along similar lines, Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, recently noted in a Washington Post op-ed with Jared Cohen (Director of Google Ideas), 

[The people of Juarez, Mexico] Have been overwhelmed by crime, their lives overcome with fear. They felt defeated, disillusioned and a little helpless. They asked us: What can we do?

And to us, at least part of the answer was obvious: technology.

And so began Google's use of their vast data resources and processing technologies to take on the Mexican drug cartels.

So is Google going where it shouldn't? Should this sort of thing be left to governments and diplomats? And what does it say about Google, our government, and technology in general that a private company is tackling issues like this head on and in new and innovative ways?

Personally, I say bring it on. Those governments and diplomats have been no more effective in stemming the arms trade, stopping the violence of the drug cartels, stopping the violence in Syria, or otherwise addressing global conflict than they have been in stopping hunger, AIDS, or human rights violations. If Google can offer a new approach that might actually incite action, let them. Look at Apple, even: What began as a PR nightmare for the company around labor conditions at FoxConn has turned into real, documented change in working conditions after Apple began public, independent monitoring.

Our discussion, not surprisingly, turned to privacy and the overall role that Google plays in our lives. The host asked, what if Google one day changed its slogan from "Don't be evil" to "Be evil". With all of its vast data stores (about all of us) and data mining capabilities, what would be the impact on us? It couldn't be good, right? Isn't this what the whole Google privacy flap was all about? Google Now, for those of us who have devices that can use it, already has an eerie sense of what we need to know before we ask.

Unfortunately for the one dissenter on the panel who called for utility-style regulation of Google, the panel was dominated by tech-savvy free-market Libertarians. He didn't get to say very much. And the consensus, as I've argued in the blog many times before, was that Google's contract with its users goes beyond its terms of service. It also runs deeper than the social contract we're supposed to have with our government (which grows more dubious all the time). It runs on profit. Google violates our trust in a way that really matters (so far, given its share of the search and mobile device markets, it appears that Google's privacy gaffes don't fall into that category), and it loses eyeballs on its services (and therefore, its ads). There is no better motivation to keep Google honest than the almighty dollar.

So give me Google Now. Give me every bit of information you can dredge up on the wrongs in the world. Expose corruption and oppression. Give me platforms for citizen journalists. Give me tools assessing the validity and value of information. Aggregate, curate, and synthesize. I need all the help I can get making sense of the world in which we live. And give me some credit for choosing to make use of all of these tools and not just blindly following the great and powerful Google. If better tools come along or Google goes rogue or our governments prove they can be as effective and efficient as the Internet giant, I'll happily (and swiftly) look elsewhere.

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