The whole "Is Google Evil?" meme has grown to be a ridiculous, farcical debate, prone to solemn punditry by some of the most authoritative voices in high tech.
I've defended Google countless times here, but I've never subscribed to the notion that Google is good, much less evil. No business deserves the evil mantle. Well, except maybe Enron. You could argue a converse case for hours.
The discussion about whether Google is good or evil isn't a binary debate. This isn't Google=God, Microsoft=Satan.
Google is a big and unfortunately bloated business (even after the "spring cleanings"), whose will to compete and get bigger has triggered business decisions that have been, well, not so nice.
Are they evil decisions? Who is to say? They're not all good; that much is certain. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan struck the right neutral tone in this piece, a commentary on Nick Bilton's New York Times piece on the fact that Google has made a number of privacy missteps.
- Search, plus your world, a bid to personalize search results by injecting content from its social network into Google.com results, once considered an area Google was not supposed to heavily influence. Google also excluded Facebook and Twitter data, prompting cries of exclusionary bias.
- Google is winnowing its product privacy policies, starting March 1, under one blanket policy in which it will let those Web services share data with each other. So imagine services from 60 one-off startups sharing data, connected by a single account. That's a big attack vector for perspective hackers, but Google's security is pretty tight.
- Google recently was caught cutting privacy corners in Apple's Safari Web browser to enable cookies to work on iOS devices and Macs.
Those are just a handful of recent transgressions in 2012, yet all of them have warranted congressional inquiry and scrutiny. Google's privacy changes solicited a complaint from three dozen state attorneys general. They're not Google's first privacy-challenging encounters.
In 2010, Google owned up to permitting Street Views cars to swipe 600GB of user data. A few months before that, Google shared users' Gmail contacts in Google Buzz without express permission.
Yet those were two isolated incidents.
The recent behavior suggests a hedging of Google's bets to push the envelope for the sake of better accessing and leveraging user data to improve ad targeting and make more money.
Privacy advocates will have you believe that Google is doing all of these things because it is a nefarious company with no regard for users' privacy. I'd argue it's nothing personal. Google only has regard for user privacy where it makes good business sense to do so.
I'd argue Google feels as if Apple, Facebook and Amazon have its back against the wall and that it is deathly afraid of becoming the next Microsoft. That is, fairly absent on the Web.
And I argue Google co-founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt form the trinity opposed to becoming the next Microsoft.
The irony is that Google has, to probably 90 percent of the high-tech-watching world, already become the next Microsoft. It's being investigated on multiple fronts, particularly for antitrust issues in search advertising, and for trampling privacy.
Google isn't acting out of evil. It's pushing the privacy envelope out of fear from the competition.
A capitalist-minded person might commend Google for the effort, but because Google traffics in consumer data, it looks like an insidious spy looking over our shoulders to make a buck.
I have to think Google knows that this isn't going to end well. Apparently, comScore said user engagement on Google+ is so low as to be negligible.
Combine that with the fact that it's ripe for a huge legal smackdown for anti-competitive practices and consumer privacy violations, and a possible violation of its consent decree, and the company could be facing a perfect storm of bad happenings this year.