As an unapologetic Google sceptic, a recent article in the MIT Technology Review caught my eye. Asked about ‘big data’, a Google rep was quoted as saying that they prefer not to be associated with that particular phrase.
Why, you ask? Big data is after all almost synonymous with Google: applying intelligent analysis to massive datasets to gather meaningful insights on user behaviour. That is exactly what Google does in a variety of ways with its search algorithms, advertising platforms, and nearly all of the myriad of free services it offers.
You use Google’s services for free, and in return Google gets data on you that it can analyse and sell to advertisers by means of ad targeting and remarketing. Google even invented some of the technologies that have enabled this whole new big data industry to thrive and prosper.
Well, Google doesn’t like ‘big data’ as a term because, and I quote, “It’s too Big Brother-ish.”
That more or less perfectly encapsulates the issues I have with Google. For them, transparency is a one-way street where we as users should be as transparent as possible so that Google can hoover up as much data as it can.
But Google repays this transparency with opacity. Sure, the company plays a puppetshow of transparency, pretending to be open and freely sharing its information. But even the shallowest attempt at scrutiny will unveil that charade for the lie that it is. Google is the exact opposite of transparent, and instead deals in a very deceitful form of information warfare where they deliberately misinform and distort whilst claiming the moral high ground of transparency and internet freedom.
Make no mistake, Google is neck-deep in to Big Data. It’s at the core of almost everything they do. But their deliberate choice not to use the phrase – to ensure they’re not perceived as the data-devouring advertising engine they actually are – is exactly along the lines of how Google engages with the SEO industry; using subtle propaganda to sow seeds of doubt about SEOs efficacy and endeavouring to make AdWords appear as the only sensible option.
This is of course not unique to Google. Most big Silicon Valley technology companies suffer from the same split personality where on the one hand they’re cultivating a public profile of fighting the good fight, and on the other hand are desperately clinging to their own secrets and engaged in deceitful activities most of us would feel uncomfortable with.
Open data, open government, open source – Silicon Valley wants the world to be open and transparent and free so that they can innovate (i.e. monetise) at will without constraint. Except when it comes to their own affairs. Then suddenly the reverse is true; closed systems, proprietary data, and secret algorithms all hidden behind layers of half-truths and blatant lies.
The worst part of it is that most of these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs genuinely believe this transparency-shtick. They’re drinking their own kool-aid and are evangelical about the need for Open Everything. Any criticism levied against the proclaimed need for full transparency is seen as backwards thinking and often condemned as attempts by archaic governments to grasp control of the free internet and stifle innovation.
It’s hard to overstate the irony of these self-same Silicon Valley elite companies providing backdoor access to their big data treasure troves to government spy agencies.
Transparency is a hype word, and Google – and Facebook, and Twitter, and Microsoft, and all of the technology big boys – play a deceitful game with it. The answer to internet freedom is not more transparency.
Privacy should be the real focus. Privacy from government as well as from internet companies spying on our online activities so that they can monetise us.
Transparency makes us slaves to the whims of those who own our data. Privacy, on the other hand, is what truly enables freedom.