I’m *NOT* Feeling Lucky: My Grievances with the Potential Google of the Future.

I’m *NOT* Feeling Lucky: My Grievances with the Potential Google of the Future. v. 0.3

By: Justin “threethirty” O’Brien

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Comercial No-Derivitives 2.0 License to request more liberal terms please see http://numberedhumanindistries.com/legal

I have come to be known as a Google hater because of my strong stance against the data retention practices and uber integration of the “Googleverse” but I do not hate Google I actually like them. They are a vibrant company where the extremely intelligent and hard working employees are treated like they are real people. Googlers get healthcare, daycare, free meals, just about anything you can think of. If that wasn’t enough of a reason to love Google they also let every employee spend 20 percent of their work week working on a project of their own choosing. Google pays its employees for the 20 percent whether it is ultimately productive or not.

On top of being one of the greatest places to work EVER, they’ve created or purchased some of the most useful applications and web utilities ever made. Everything from the Chrome Web Browser, to the Picasa Digital Photo Suite, to Jaiku a Free Software micro-blogging service. They are reinventing the way we handle data in the new digital age with minor things like tagging emails instead of having to create folders. All the way to making us all communicate better with gtalk and wave. Every correspondence in the Googleverse is archived so that you can retrieve any little piece of information you need at anytime in the future, and that is where the trouble starts.

Because Google is the Midas of Web 2.0 everything they seem to touch is gold and has created a pseudo monopoly. We all have railed against other monopolies (like Microsoft) but seem to give Google a free ride because they are one of us, they are the digital elite. We are all good friends with Google and Google is our friend. They give us free cool services like YouTube and Gmail, they contribute to Free Software projects like the Linux kernel, Samba, Apache, etc. and they even bought the booze at the after party of a Linux Con. But like any friendship what happens if we drift apart and they start hanging out with another crowd? Will our data, all the secrets we have shared with our friend Google still be safe? How good of a friend are they? A buddy of mine says that a friend will help you move a couch, but a best friend will help you move a dead body. Which would Google do?

If you look at the Google Privacy Center (http://www.google.com/privacy.html) you can see that Google is gathering data through every channel possible. There you can also see the current Privacy Policy as of March 11, 2009. Recently they also added a Privacy Dashboard that will allow you to manage your Privacy settings for a bunch of their products, but there is no reason to believe that they are getting rid of that data after the settings are changed. These are all fairly new things they have added because I’m not the first nor will I be the last person to worry/complain about this issue.

I’m not the only person who is worried about this and my brethren range from the concerned to the possibly crazy. I’m not willing to make judgment so I will give everyone their fair shake. Cory Doctorow, Science Fiction Author, Blogger, Free lance Journalist, and Internet Superhero, wrote a short story for Radar Magazine called “Scroogled” (http://craphound.com/?p=1902) where Google is contracted by the Government to watch over us with the tools they have already built. Yes this is only fiction but there are other groups who believe it is already happening. Daniel Brandt and team over at http://www.google-watch.org/ are obsessed with “Google’s monopoly,algorithms, and privacy policies”. Under the heading “Big Brother is well-connected” they lay out 9 points in connection with their nomination of Google for the Big Brother award of 2003.

Their issues are:

1. Google’s immortal cookie: Google was the first search engine to use a cookie that expires in 2038. This was at a time when federal websites were prohibited from using persistent cookies altogether. Now it’s years later, and immortal cookies are commonplace among search engines; Google set the standard because no one bothered to challenge them. This cookie places a unique ID number on your hard disk. Anytime you land on a Google page, you get a Google cookie if you don’t already have one. If you have one, they read and record your unique ID number.

2. Google records everything they can: For all searches they record the cookie ID, your Internet IP address, the time and date, your search terms, and your browser configuration. Increasingly, Google is customizing results based on your IP number. This is referred to in the industry as “IP delivery based on geolocation.”

3. Google retains all data indefinitely: Google has no data retention policies. There is evidence that they are able to easily access all the user information they collect and save.

4. Google won’t say why they need this data: Inquiries to Google about their privacy policies are ignored. When the New York Times (2002-11-28) asked Sergey Brin about whether Google ever gets subpoenaed for this information, he had no comment.

5. Google hires spooks: Keyhole, Inc. was supported with funds from the CIA. They developed a database of spy-in-the-sky images from all over the world. Google acquired Keyhole in 2004, and would like to hire more people with security clearances, so that they can peddle their corporate assets to the spooks in Washington.

6. Google’s toolbar is spyware: With the advanced features enabled, Google’s free toolbar for Explorer phones home with every page you surf, and yes, it reads your cookie too. Their privacy policy confesses this, but that’s only because Alexa lost a class-action lawsuit when their toolbar did the same thing, and their privacy policy failed to explain this. Worse yet, Google’s toolbar updates to new versions quietly, and without asking. This means that if you have the toolbar installed, Google essentially has complete access to your hard disk every time you connect to Google (which is many times a day). Most software vendors, and even Microsoft, ask if you’d like an updated version. But not Google. Any software that updates automatically presents a massive security risk.

7. Google’s cache copy is illegal: Judging from Ninth Circuit precedent on the application of U.S. copyright laws to the Internet, Google’s cache copy appears to be illegal. The only way a webmaster can avoid having his site cached on Google is to put a “noarchive” meta in the header of every page on his site. Surfers like the cache, but webmasters don’t. Many webmasters have deleted questionable material from their sites, only to discover later that the problem pages live merrily on in Google’s cache. The cache copy should be “opt-in” for webmasters, not “opt-out.” 8. Google is not your friend: By now Google enjoys a 75 percent monopoly for all external referrals to most websites. Webmasters cannot avoid seeking Google’s approval these days, assuming they want to increase traffic to their site. If they try to take advantage of some of the known weaknesses in Google’s semi-secret algorithms, they may find themselves penalized by Google, and their traffic disappears. There are no detailed, published standards issued by Google, and there is no appeal process for penalized sites. Google is completely unaccountable. Most of the time Google doesn’t even answer email from webmasters. 9. Google is a privacy time bomb: With 200 million searches per day, most from outside the U.S., Google amounts to a privacy disaster waiting to happen. Those newly-commissioned data-mining bureaucrats in Washington can only dream about the sort of slick efficiency that Google has already achieved.

I’m not willing to debate these points mainly because I have no way to verify or deny these claims, and many of them go well outside my knowledge base.

There are some practical issues with relying on Google for your… well everything. Tens of thousands of people, business and otherwise were without email and and calendaring during a Gmail outage that lasted almost an entire day. This included people that had service contracts with Google for Gmail for your domain. As many of us saw it as a free day the business people were losing productivity and therefore money.

With the rise of the Google Android smartphones we have a new level of Scroogletude. If you become locked out of your Google account (like if you forgot your password) you could be in a world of hurt. I know an Android user who in order to use their phone had to create a Google account. When the user created the Google account they used their .edu email as the “other” email address that Google can contact you at. The only problem was the .edu was a Gmail for your Domain account so when they requested the password reset instructions Google would not send it to another Gmail account. When the user chose the “I don’t have that email address anymore” link they were told the account would have to be idle for 24 hours before they would help (mainly to make sure it wasn’t a scripted attack) which would have been fine except their phone was trying to access the account every 15 minutes so that it could be useful. Which Google took to be an attack. The moral of this story is don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, even if it’s Google.

If you are now sufficiently freaked out by the Gooogleverse there are some alternatives to some of the gtools. If you love Google Search but don’t like being tracked there is Scroogle (http://scroogle.org). Scroogle is a Google search proxy that prevents your data being stored by Google. Scroogle also gives you the option of having all communication between your computer and Scroogle’s search page be SSL encrypted.

If you have a Web Server or am willing to pay for a hosted service and are looking for a GoogleApps and/or Gmail replacement you should have a look at Feng Office which was formerly called OpenGoo (http://fengoffice.com). They have a full suite that handles email, contacts, calendar, time tracking, and documents.

If you are interested in Wave but don’t want to tie yourself to Google try Pygowave (http://pygowave.net). Someday all of the different waves are supposed to be interoperable anyway (it’s part of the specification) so by not being on Google Wave won’t be missing out by the time it starts catching on.

All of the above mentioned Google replacements I am currently using with great success. The only issue with Fengo (running on your own server) is that you must already have email with a pop3 or imap support. Any will do but make sure that you trust the provider or you will be in the same boat again.