For all the good things that Google has brought into the world, everything from free and amazing emails to mapping the moon and Earth’s ocean floor to driver-less cars, the company has also become an undisputed master of obfuscation. Anytime the company has been asked to clarify or explain their actions or their habits, whether the inquiry comes from private individuals or government authorities, Google always skirts the answer and reveals as little as it possibly can get away with sharing. The company has achieved such high levels of finesse with this non-answering that, ironically, it’s a little surprising that “to google” hasn’t also been verbified to mean “stonewall as much and as long as possible.”
Just take a look at the recent Street View wi-fi spying scandal that’s (presumptively) wrapped up. Google only incrementally shared as little as it had to and even then didn’t make it easy for investigators to get answers from the company. The company said it hadn’t been collecting “payload” data with via Street View cars, but then it said it was but it was an accident; Google actually said it stopped sponging up data from unsecured wi-fi networks. The company was eventually fined for obstructing the investigation but said the whole mess had been caused by a rogue engineer. When more pushing came to more shoving, it turns out the wi-fi spying wasn’t an accident and wasn’t even the act of some nefarious rogue – some higher-ups at Google had known about it all along.
Google holds its cards so deathly close to its chest that had privacy organizations or the government not been persistent in asking the company questions, we never would have known that Google did in fact know of the Street View spying or that it wasn’t just some bad egg at work.
Andrew Blum, the author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, recounts an encounter with Google where the company exhibited the same unnatural distrust for inquiries about the company’s practices. Traveling around to explore the physical infrastructure that supports the internet, Blum was welcomed for his curiosity about what the internet looks like behind the curtain – until he got to Google. Limited to touring the parking lot of the Google’s offices in The Dalles, Oregon, and consistently redirected anytime he asked a question about what goes on at Google, Blum writes that Google’s alleged willingness to embrace a new stage of transparency was a qualified sham.
Walking past a large data center building, painted yellow like a penitentiary, I asked what went on inside. Did this building contain the computers that crawl through the Web for the search index? Did it process search queries? Did it store email? “You mean what The Dalles does?” my guide responded. “That’s not something that we probably discuss. But I’m sure that data is available internally.” (I bet.) It was a scripted non-answer, however awkwardly expressed. And it might have been excusable, if the contrast weren’t so stark with the dozens of other pieces of the Internet that I visited. Google was the outlier—not only for being the most secretive but the most disingenuous about that secrecy.
After my tour of Google’s parking lot, I joined a hand-picked group of Googlers for lunch in their cafeteria overlooking the Columbia River. The conversation consisted of a PR handler prompting each of them to say a few words about how much they liked living in The Dalles and working at Google. (It was some consolation that they were treated like children, too.) I considered expressing my frustration at the kabuki going on, but I decided it wasn’t their choice. It was bigger than them. Eventually, emboldened by my peanut-butter cups, I said only that I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to go inside a data center and learn more. My PR handler’s response was immediate: “Senators and governors have been disappointed too!”
I recently watched the John Carpenter classic They Live and it doesn’t really tax my imagination too much to picture Blum in the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper role of that movie: the knows-too-much outsider who sees past the cultured propaganda that the alien overlords have indoctrinated all of its subordinates into believing. Only Blum didn’t need special sunglasses to see that Google was hiding something. Or everything.
That’s just the thing, though: what exactly is Google so desperate to keep concealed? Why, more importantly, does Google guard against any questions whatsoever with the tenacity of a kodiak hyped up on a couple of meth rocks while trying to protect its den? The company, despite its friendly masquerade of colors and cute animations, lives and dies by this Hobbesian tenet that it is constantly besieged and no outsider can be trusted.
You have to imagine that Marius Milner, the so-called “rogue” engineer who developed the software that the Street View cars used to collect information across wi-fi networks, has some contractual gag order that keeps him from telling his side of the story or even spilling some beans about what goes on behind Google’s walls. The company practically threw him under the bus after that whole debacle and yet nary a peep has been heard from him since the scandal.
By all rights and purposes, Google’s transparency report (that it willfully provides) begins to look like an act of subterfuge when it’s compared to the company’s overall policy on transparency. Instead of serving the purpose to maintain good relations with the public – which it probably would help to do in a different scenario – the report is more like a ceremonial offering to public so that we’ll all leave Google alone. “What, I already gave you the transparency report,” crotchety old Google scraped from its gravely throat, “What else do you want from me? Scram!”
It’s Google’s prerogative to be as guarded as it wants, that’s fine. But such practices don’t exactly inspire the most sincere trust in its users. Worse, Google continues to tell people to trust it and that it knows best in spite of consistent public dissent and disagreement. Google doesn’t want you to ask questions about its policies but, instead, to blindly put your faith in Google to do what’s best because Google wants you to accept that it knows what’s best for you. Do not hesitate in accepting Google. Rather, follow along with the rules Google makes up as it goes along and don’t ask any questions.
Or, more simply: obey.