Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) is a challenging, if flawed, book. Vaidhyanathan’s central premise is that we should work to influence or regulate search systems like Google (and, presumably, Yahoo! and Bing) to take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge to us, the citizens of the world. In addition to pursuing this premise, the book tries to deflate the hyperbole around contemporary technical systems by arguing against notions of technological determinism/utopianism.
As I will discuss, the book largely succeeds in pointing to reasons why regulation is an important policy instrument to keep available. The book also attempts to situate itself within the science and technology studies field, and here it is less successful. Ultimately, while Vaidhyanathan offers insight into Google itself – its processes, products, and implications of using the company’s systems – he is less successful in digging into the nature of technology, Google, culture, and society at a theoretical level. This leaves the reader with an empirical understanding of the topic matter without significant analytic resources to unpack the theoretical significance of their newfound empirical understandings.
Google Analytics have become an almost ever-present part of the contemporary Internet. Large, small, and medium-sized sites alike track their website visitors using Google’s free tools to identify where visitors are coming from, what they’re looking at (and for how long), where they subsequently navigate to, what keywords bring people to websites, and whether internal metrics are in line with advertising campaign goals. As of 2010, roughly 52% of all websites used Google’s analytics system, and it accounted for 81.4% of the traffic analysis tools market. As of this writing, Google’s system is used by roughly 58% of the top 10,000 websites, 57% of the top 100,000 websites, and 41.5% of the top million sites. In short, Google is providing analytics services to a considerable number of the world’s most commonly frequented websites.
In this short post I want to discuss the terms of using Google analytics. Based on conversations I’ve had over the past several months, it seems like many of the medium and small business owners are unaware of the conditions that Google places on using their tool. Further, independent bloggers are using analytics engines – either intentionally or by the default of their website host/creator – and are ignorant of what they must do to legitimately use them. After outlining the brief bits of legalese that are required by Google – and suggesting what Google should do to ensure terms of service compliance – I’ll suggest a business model/addition that could simultaneously assist in privacy compliance while netting an enterprising company/individual a few extra dollars in revenue.
Technology is neither good or bad. It’s also not neutral. Network neutrality, a political rallying cry meant to motivate free-speech, free-culture, and innovation advocates, was reportedly betrayed by Google following the release of a Verizon-Google policy document on network management/neutrality. What the document reveals is that the two corporations, facing a (seemingly) impotent FCC, have gotten the ball rolling by suggesting a set of policies that the FCC could use in developing a network neutrality framework. Unfortunately, there has been little even-handed analysis of this document from the advocates of network neutrality; instead we have witnessed vitriol and over-the-top rhetoric. This is disappointing. While sensational headlines attract readers, they do little to actually inform the public about network neutrality in a detailed, granular, reasonable fashion. Verizon-Google have provided advocates with an opportunity to pointedly articulate their views while the public is watching, and this is not an opportunity that should be squandered with bitter and unproductive criticism.
I’m intending this to be the first of a few posts on network neutrality. In this post, I exclusively work through the principles suggested by Verizon-Google. In this first, and probationary, analysis I will draw on existing American regulatory language and lessons that might be drawn from the Canadian experience surrounding network management. My overall feel of the document published by Verizon-Google is that, in many ways, it’s very conservative insofar as it adheres to dominant North American regulatory approaches. My key suggestion is that instead of rejecting the principles laid out in their entirety we should carefully consider each in turn. During my examination, I hope to identify what principles and/or their elements could be usefully taken up into a government-backed regulatory framework that recognizes the technical, social, and economic potentials of America’s broadband networks.
Google Street View has come under fire again, this time for collecting wireless router information and some packets of data whilst wandering the globe and collecting pictures of our streets. It looks like the German authorities, in particular, may come down hard of Google though I’m at odds about the ‘calibre’ of the privacy violation – router information is fair game as far as I’m concerned, though data packets are a little dicier. But before I dig into that, let me outline what’s actually gone on.
Last Friday, Google announced that they had been inadvertently collecting some data packets sent via unencrypted wireless access points for the past three years. This admission came after the Street View program (again) came under criticism from German data protection authorities following Google’s (original, and earlier) admission that they had only been collecting information about wireless routers as they drove their cars around towns. Specifically, the original admission saw Google reveal they had collected the SSID and MAC addresses of routers. In layman’s terms, the SSID is the name of the wireless network that is usually given to the device during configuration processes following the installation of the device (e.g. Apartment 312, Pablo14, or any of the other names that are shown when you scan for wireless networks from your computer). The MAC address a unique number that is associated with each piece of Internet networking equipment; your wireless card in your computer, your LAN card, your router, and your iPhone all have unique numbers. After collecting both the SSID and MAC address of a wireless router the company identified the physical location of the device using a GPS system.
Google collects information about wireless networks and (almost more importantly) their physical location to provide a wifi-based geolocation system. Once they know where wireless routers are, and plot them on a map, you don’t need GPS to plan and trace a route through a city because a wireless card and low-powered computer will suffice. There are claims that this constitutes a privacy infringement, insofar as the correlation of SSID, MAC address, and physical location of the router constitute personal information. I’m not sure that I agree with this, as the Google service stands now.