• T. Kearny Vertner, III

"Don't Be Evil" -or- Beware the Free Lunch

In 2018, Google dropped this famous mantra from its employee code of conduct, but it was worth considering alternatives before that.

One of my favorite internet debates always boils down to "iPhone or Android"? While I respect some of the cool functions many Android-based devices have, I prefer Apple's iPhone. I've got plenty of other compelling reasons, such as the speed and reliability of security patches and operating system updates, the higher quality of both Apple and third-party software, the lack of included bloatware, the avoidance of carrier and manufacturer-loaded customizations. My biggest reason always boils down to this: Apple is a hardware company, and Google is an advertising company. Apple makes its money by selling high-margin quality hardware while Google makes its money from your data. I think you can imagine which one I trust.


Google History


Beginning in 1998, Larry Page and Sergei Brin sought to bring a world-class search engine to a market clogged with countless poorly-designed search engines and web directories. All of them saw search as a small extension of a cluttered portal aiming to deliver an experience that kept you captive on their site. Each algorithm was independently terrible, and the interfaces were universally awful. It's a matter of amusement that the best search engine prior to Google was (arguably) Dogpile, which merely searched ten other popular search engines and aggregated their results. Google Search's algorithm was far more refined and learning quickly while offering a fast-loading simple text-based design that worked smoothly over the time's terrible internet connections. In a world of awful HTML4 pages slathered in flashing gifs, banner ads, pop-up windows, guest books, poor font choices, and terrible colors, Google Search was a breath of fresh air.


Ahh... <blink> and <marquee> tags... we don't miss you.


In 2000, Google recognized that its big-data-driven enterprise was building an archive of a lot of increasingly personal data and incorporated the phrase, "Don't Be Evil" across their enterprise, including their employee code of conduct. Eighteen years later, it quietly slipped away, replaced by the softer "Do the Right Thing." Somehow, that just doesn't feel like the same clear mandate.


While many would consider Google (truthfully, since their 2015 reorganization, Alphabet, Inc) to be a search engine company, the vast bulk of their revenue comes from advertising. They print so much capital with advertising that they seem like they can afford to casually offer best-in-breed mapping services, mobile operating systems, web browsers, domain name service (DNS), e-mail, office suite software, video streaming, cloud hosting, and IP telephony entirely for free. One has to wonder why? How?


Google Search


To answer that question, it's important to understand just how their search algorithm works and why it works so well. Many folks assume that it harmlessly searches the internet based purely on the terms you typed, but the truth is far more complex. It starts by asking, "who is searching?" Fortunately, you're logged in, so that's easy. Next, it asks, "what kinds of things do you like to find?" Through the magic of Google Analytics, it's got a shockingly good knowledge of your browsing history (more on that in a minute). Next, it's looking at what people like you might be interested in that are related to what you're looking for. For example, if you searched for cheese and Google thinks you're a 65-year-old woman who likes collecting stamps, it's going to see what sites other stamp-collecting 65-year-old women clicked on when they searched for cheese. Finally, it's going to evaluate the site itself for relevance to your search term and weigh the site's popularity against the danger of the site (extremists, authoritarians, etc. are all notoriously hard to find in a Google search). All of these incredibly complex operations take place in nanoseconds to help you find a perfect block of Parmesan. 


Google Analytics is a fascinating component in all of this. If you've been on the internet long enough, you remember sites having visitor counters proudly displayed. As a teenager building fan sites on GeoCities, I loved coming home from school and seeing how many people had visited my site since I went to bed. Google Analytics offers me this, but so much more:

... and this is just the splash page. Each of these panels can be adjusted and expanded. I can learn what part of my site readers lingered the longest, which parts readers clicked on (when they aren't links), what kinds of devices are preferred, and more. As someone that produces content, this is great for refining my site. It also helps improves Google's Search for you by refining its understanding of your interests. Woe be the web developer who doesn't use these tools for fear that their site will be harder to find on the world's most popular search engine!


To be clear, I use Google Analytics (and Facebook's similar application, Pixel) on this blog. While I can view the data these produce in aggregate, I have no way of knowing your personal browsing habits. Google (and Facebook) knows, but I don't.


Superficially, this aids Google Search's algorithm by matching you with the information you want the most. More insidiously, the same data also matches you with the most relevant advertisements. Those ads aren't just what you see on Google's pages, but on a significant chunk of the rest of the internet's websites as well. That's right, the blog covered in banner ads uses Google Analytics to learn more about its users to feed the search algorithm, which feeds the ads that are being displayed on that site. It's a big loop. Regardless of the site, the internet runs on Google's architecture.


Google Data


"Data is the new oil" has become a common mantra among the Silicon Valley startup set. Nobody has taken this further than Google, though Facebook and Amazon are quickly catching up. Google has realized how powerful it is to help you house as much data as possible on their servers, offering an incredible value to advertisers who want to target the aforementioned 65-year-old woman who collects stamps. Nearly every service under Google's massive umbrella is part of this data-gathering machine. Consider even the humble delete button on your Gmail has been replaced with archive, as if to say, "don't get rid of (y)our data... just stop looking at it."


This data-trolling operation is immense. Google is fastidiously mapping out your location history (Google Maps), your level of physical activity (Google Fit), your level of disposable income (Google Pay), all information you're looking at (Google Chrome, DNS, Gmail, Analytics, etc.), and even your entertainment choices (YouTube). They even conveniently developed two operating systems to help them do all of the above at once (Android and ChromeOS).


It's no wonder that China has effectively shut Google out of its internet and focused on creating similar applications. The level of detail on each person would excite any intelligence agency looking to thwart a terrorist attack - or seek out dissident voices.


Google or "How I stopped worrying and learned to love the data"


Now that you're sufficiently concerned, here's the good and bad news: you can't do much about it. As I said, Google basically runs the internet. To an extent, I'm even grateful for how relevant the ads are. Gone are the days that all I see are ads for things I'm completely not interested in, and occasionally I will admit to clicking on an ad that features a product I'd like to learn more about. Like it or not, many of their free services are irreplaceable, indispensable, or the best around... and often all three. Still, there are a few ways you can help maintain some illusion of control over your personal data and eschew the monster of monetization. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Stop using Gmail. This one will be the hardest. I promise there are services out there that are just as good. Some of them cost money, but this is a good thing! It ensures that you are the customer. You can export your own e-mails, contacts, and notes from Gmail using Google Takeout to download archive files that you can import into your next service.

  2. Consider Using DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo is a search engine whose speed and results are almost as good as Google's, but they focus on privacy as a selling point. They still sell advertisements, but they are targeted on your search terms only.

  3. Use Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud, or Dropbox. Each of these has its pros and cons for cloud storage, and they all cost money. They're also all equally reliable and offer some powerful operating system integrations. From personal experience, iCloud these days has become an absolute lifesaver.

  4. Use FireFox or Safari. I would have included Microsoft's Edge, but it's Chromium now (after years of slugging it out in the browser wars, they finally gave up and just slapped a coat of paint on Google's software). The irony is that both browsers earn money from Google for setting it as their default search engine, but you can change it.

  5. Use iOS. I wish we had more options here, frankly. I understand that Apple's devices aren't for everybody, and their failure to offer anything lower-end makes a tough decision for someone who doesn't want to drop $700+ on a phone.

You've probably noticed a theme: if a product or service is free, you are not the customer. You are the product. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Seek quality services that ask for a reasonable fee. You'll find a cleaner, stabler, more ad-free experience in no time.


Conclusion


After all of this doom and gloom, you might be wondering, "what's the point?" Honestly, you're probably right. It's pointless to imagine a world where your data is entirely private. No matter what, there are concessions as the companies that have your data aggressively monetize it however they can in ways that are usually transparent to you, other than minor improvements in a particular service or piece of software. That said, I'm still a fan of pursuing security and privacy by default and opening windows and doors of my own choosing. I've talked a lot about the importance of good security and strong encryption, but these things don't matter if we're just gleefully clicking through the End User License Agreement on a "free" web service that promises us the moon and stars in exchange for our life's story.


What are some great replacements for Google's services you have found?







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© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com