Last updated: September 2014
"We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about."
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google.
What is Google?
Google Inc. was founded in 1998 with $100,000 of start-up funding and a mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Forward to 2014 and Google has a market capitalisation of close to £235 billion, ahead of ExxonMobil and second only to Apple as the world’s most valuable company. In the second quarter of 2014 it reported revenues of £9.4bn and profits of £4.8bn (before investment in its own infrastructure, research and development).
It is the dominant search engine in Europe, USA, South America and India. It provides a host of online services through Gmail, Google maps, and YouTube. Its Android operating system powers the majority of mobile devices worldwide, it sells phones and tablets and the accompanying apps.
The majority of these services tie together to form a single ecosystem, a vast network for the collection and mining of personal data. But at heart Google is an advertising business and 90% of its revenue comes from selling online advertising. One third of global advertising spend goes through Google.
During 2014 Google acquired Titan Aerospace (high altitude drone maker), Nest (monitoring of home devices such as thermostats and smoke alarms) and Dropcam (wi-fi video streaming, audio surveillance and sensors). In 2013, it bought Boston Dynamics which makes robots for the US military.
“Don’t Be Evil”
Tax avoidance, copyright infringement, censorship, market manipulation, political lobbying, privacy violations. It’s fair to say that there are a few concerns and accusations about how Google operates.
Search and censorship
However Google received deserved plaudits in 2010 for ending its self-censorship of search results in mainland China, which led to a ban on its services and effectively a withdrawal from this huge market.
In July 2014 it also enacted a new policy on sexually explicit content, effectively banning the promotion of sex sites with Google’s Adwords (adverts next to search results). The pornography industry has called this a ‘blatant act of censorship’ as a result of pressure from US Christian groups.
In this case we can assume that it is not going to launch a competitor service, as it has done with hotel bookings (Google Hotel Finder), and shopping (Google Shopping).
Competitors allege that Google increasingly tilts search results in favour of its own online commerce offerings as it bundles those services into its industry-dominant search engine, limiting choice and stifling competition.
At a US Senate hearing in 2011, Senator Herb Kohl asked:
“Is it possible for Google to be both an unbiased search engine and at the same time own a vast portfolio of Web-based products and services?”
The European Commission has been probing Google’s search business practices since November 2010. In July 2014 it was reported that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany has prepared a proposal to regulate Google as a utility, due to its dominant market position in search.
One problem for website owners is the inequality caused by Google’s almost complete dominance of web search: to block Google and remove your site from its search index means almost instantly to lose a large proportion of visitors.
Google and privacy
For most people the main reason to avoid Google is to stop being part of a huge data gathering exercise that breaches personal privacy.
As the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.
From 2010 to 2014 Google has faced fines and data-deletion orders worldwide for secretly collecting wi-fi network data, including gathering passwords, e-mail and other personal information during its Street View mapping project.
The authorities issued several recommendations, which Google Inc. did not effectively follow up on. Consequently, each jurisdiction individually initiated enforcement proceedings against the company, leading to financial penalties in France and Spain.
In another case the company tried to circumvent UK privacy laws. The company claimed in the British High Court that a case against it should be dismissed as there was “no jurisdiction” for the case to be heard in the UK because its consumer services were not provided by Google UK but its US division.
How much Google knows about you depends on how many of their products or services you use. All of your personal data across Google’s services is merged into a single database, allowing Google to cross-reference the data across multiple accounts and devices.
First there is your web search history, which builds quite a complete and accurate picture. If you have a Google account, sign in, go to www.google.com/dashboard and take a look at your account history.
All emails sent both to and from a Gmail account will be scanned. Google has said that email users have “no legitimate expectation of privacy”. The statement came in a Californian court case accusing the company of unlawfully opening up and acquiring the content of private email messages in order to target advertising.
Any documents in a Google Drive will similarly be scanned, and a record kept of who you share them with. Google Chat, Talk and Hangout sessions can also be recorded and stored.
Your physical location is known if you use Google Search, visit any of the 15+ million websites using Google Analytics tracking, or use Chrome browser without taking any privacy precautions.
On an Android tablet or phone the GPS tracks your current location by default from Google Maps, Earth and Street View. Google knows which places are of interest to you. It recently bought the ‘community’ navigation app Waze, which has 50 million users all planning and naming their routes and destinations.
If you have an Android phone, the company’s policy also allows for it to know which numbers you call, and when, and for how long. Likely it also knows your home wi-fi password. Do you allow Google Chrome to store login passwords? If so add them to the mix.
Your future plans may be easy to fathom from data in your Google Calendar, Google+ and Gmail accounts. Google Shopping and Wallet will store your credit card or banking information.
Services such as YouTube and Translate are able to use voice recognition.
Avoidance and alternatives
Avoid or reduce your use of Google products if you don’t want to provide it with details about your tastes and interests, job, relationship status, who your friends and acquaintances are, what you say to them, your religious and political views, health concerns and more.
Our guides demonstrate that there are plenty of alternatives, some of which are just as good.
We especially recommend:
Whatever services you do use, be sure to log out of Google as much as possible. Also go to www.google.com/dashboard and disable your history.