Binary Static

How evil is Google really?

Posted in Google, Politics, Web by Chris on December 9, 2009

Google Logoerman journalist Christian Ströker comments on an interview with Eric Schmidt and comes to the conclusion that Google wants it all. The big program, all of it, “world domination”. He sees an evil strategy behind Google’s innovations and acquisitions to abolish our “civil concept of privacy”. This is not quite the same as the “world domination” mentioned in the headline, but whatever. Ströker’s proof: Schmidt advises us to refrain from activities we fear to become public. Google chronicles all our web journeys plus social data and links them to semi-anonymized IPs. Worse, Google tries to link these web characters to geographical locations (Google Latitude etc). Wow, that’s bad shit, Mr. Ströker.

However Google is your least problem when surfing the web. Your ISP and your mail provider know everything about you by default. Any sys admin at any ISP can read every bit, and I mean bit, of your web traffic 24/7. In Germany, the ISPs are even required by law to record your connections and log them with your full IP address for months. And of course, they are to be given out to the authorities on request – that’s why they are to be collected in the first place. Mail providers could easily read all your mails, including the ones with the user logins and passwords. No matter what mail provider you use.

And what about Schmidt’s privacy statement?  Although people don’t seem to get it: everything you do online you do in a public place. And you always did, even before 1996.  So, as far as public places go: if you don’t want other people to see something, where you don’t have much chances to hide it, than you best don’t do it, at least not in a public place.  Which brings us to Ströker’s very misconception: the internet is not and never was a private place.  The moment you log on, you’re leaving your home and go out on (a very crowded) street. There are of course tools which allow you to hide at least some things (everyone should use PGP in their private correspondence for that matter) – however, as long as some bits crawl some line it’s not that much different from walking on a public street.

Our real problem is not some alleged corporate conspiracy against privacy but political attempts to censor and govern the raw traffic at the heart of the consumer internet: the ISPs’ servers. If people want to give up their privacy to Google, that’s fine, or at least it’s their right to do so. But this agreement has only two parties: them and Google. There’s no place for governments in this. Of course, Google might decide to cooperate with law enforcement agencies against their customers. But again, this is nothing new, but something ISPs all over the world (have to) do on a daily basis. The real problem is not Google, but third party access to your web traffic on behalf of the public good. Consider the following analogy: if I decide to open all my private letters to some private corporation who promises me, say, lightning fast mailing service, then you need not like my decision, but it’s legitimate nevertheless. In fact, this is what happened when people started to use private telegraphy services in the 19th century.  It happened again when people bought internet access from private ISPs. It is a complete different matter, though, when a third party requires a copy of every letter sent over the wire. Yet, this is not a problem of the contract in itself. It’s a problem of wrong government priorities.

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