Google: just like your favorite sports team?

Rooting for one of the most powerful companies in world history can reinforce a dangerous entrenchment of unbridled power.
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor
Upon posting stories such as “Google miscalculates with Google Checkout” or “Google domination of world's information includes your playlists” or “Google CEO Eric Schmidt: transparency, or more 'Google Speak'” I have been known to walk around the apartment asking out loud “Why does Google get a pass?”

My audience of one, the spouse, responded recently with an interesting take: “Google is just like someone’s favorite sports team.”

What does he mean by that? Local residents root for the hometown basketball team even after a bad game (except for NYC Knicks fans!).

Similarly, Google is viewed as everybody’s favorite search engine and the “little start-up that could” American dream success story. It doesn’t hurt either that its market cap has enriched many an individual investor.

Rooting for a sports team provides generally harmless entertainment. Rooting for one of the most powerful companies in world history, however, can reinforce a dangerous entrenchment of unbridled power.

During the Spring, I referenced an academic study underscoring the need to be more critical of Google; It is worthwhile to take a fresh look.

“In Google we trust” is a scholarly analysis of how Google has become a trusted brand in so little time, the implications of such trust and the need for greater critical analysis of Google. Lee Shaker’s paper at FirstMonday.org on “Information integrity in the digital age” posits:

Analysis of the extensive coverage of Google’s share price and earnings reports leads to the conclusion that trust in Google is fostered in part simply by reports of its fiscal success. To the extent that this is true, meaningful public debate about information policies is inhibited…as Google grows entrenched as a central hub of Internet use, the company’s role as an arbiter of information becomes increasingly important…

As a company that organizes information at its core, Google has not been sufficiently examined in this context. To begin with, Google maintains server records for every search term used, every Web site visited, and the IP address and browser associated with these actions (Mills, 2005). Google’s other services are not innocuous either. Gmail, in return for free access to a large amount of server space, scans every e–mail and provides targeted advertisements based on the words within them (Orlowski, 2004b). If logged in, the account created to use Gmail carries over to use of Froogle or Google Scholar, linking academic and consumer searches with a unique user regardless of the computer used…At the same time, Google’s resistance to a consumer–friendly privacy policy is well documented and suspicious…reading the privacy policy makes it clear that it is a document to protect the company’s interests first, to reassure users second, and protect users lastly…

Unlike many of its competitors — Yahoo!, eBay, Excite, MSN — Google does not advertise on television or in mainstream publications (Olsen, 2005). Instead, its brand is developed through direct interactions with Internet users and through media coverage about the company. As long as this coverage continues to have a positive tenor, Google reaps the reward of untold free, positive publicity. As of now, this narrative poses Google as a tremendously successful and innovative company — qualities that burnish the company’s brand and technological profile. To the extent that this image is based largely on strong financial performance and prospects and not on critical assessments of the company’s range of activities, trust may be stimulated in the audience somewhat erroneously…Articles discussing the potential downside of Google may be dismissed as conspiracy theory — not news…

If one accepts that information integrity merits some modicum of coverage, it is reasonable to wonder why these issues — though deeply parsed in academic and advocacy circles — fail to receive attention from the Times. Like so many other technical topics, this terrain is difficult to grasp — for both audience and reporter. Consequently, editors and reporters may conclude that the resources expended to extend coverage to these issues may not be matched by the benefit the audience will derive…

Another possibility is that Google’s stance towards the media is characterized not just by reticence but also by secrecy. Without information about the inner workings at Google, it is difficult to write a responsible story within normal journalistic norms. This does not mean that the stories should not be written at all, and, actually makes the issues seem even more salient…


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