At Berkeley University four years ago, Sergey Brin, the co founder of Google, stood up in front of a room full of students and said: “in our lifetime everyone may have tools of equal power”. Giving a short lecture before taking questions from the audience, a casual and laid back Brin took the time to proclaim his love for mathematics and computers before touching upon the inspiration behind the formation of Google. “Technology,” he told the students, “is an inherent democratiser.”
He talked about algorithms, cracking the “Chinese market” and the Google brand; about the importance of being user friendly and also law abiding – but at no point did he address the incongruence between his idealised vision of Google, presented to the Berkley students, and the reality of its day to day existence.
Brin, like Google, talks the talk but does not walk the walk. One of Google’s core principles is “democracy on the web works”, but democracy does not entail being complicit in the repression of freedom of speech, like Google has been in China. Brin was certainly right about the capacity internet technology has to be an ‘inherent democratiser’; but this is reliant heavily upon how companies such as Google handle the power that they wield. Collecting ‘data logs’ that store the search habits of every unique user, and doing so without the explicit consent of that user, is an abuse of this power – and yes, again, Google is guilty as charged.
The two faces of Google have, though, been exposed for all to see in recent weeks and months. Their indiscriminate rampage against an array of popular music bloggers – labeled aptly as “music blogocide 2010” – whereby they deleted entire blogs on a whim as a result of complaints generated in some cases by ‘bots’, is exemplar of the increasingly callous behaviour of a company that is rapidly becoming more Mr. Hyde than it is Dr. Jekyll.
Highly regarded Scottish blog, the Pop Cop, was their most recent victim. “We've been forced to remove your blog… Thank you for your understanding” wrote Google’s Blogger.com team in a laconic email issued to the Pop Cop – their overly bureaucratic, rigidly undemocratic and highly automated copyright complaints procedure felling yet another innocent bystander in a blind and pointless war spearheaded by a greed-crazed music industry clutching at straws. Brin can talk all day about “equal power”, but it’s crystal clear that the internet is still far from a level playing field.
The Pop Cop’s creator, Jason, is now campaigning to have his blog reinstated, but Google has so far ignored all of his attempts to contact them. Three years worth of work wiped in an instant, with no room for recourse, no space for appeal. It’s little surprise then that Jason is dubious about starting another blog. “It really is 50-50 at the moment whether I blog elsewhere or not”, he told the Skinny. “If I do, I certainly won't use Blogger.”
A version of this article appears at: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/blog/2-the-skinny-blog/433-a-skinny-take-the-two-faces-of-google