On Google, Microsoft and Trust

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The conventional wisdom here is simple: Google is trustworthy, Microsoft is not. These assumptions have thus far displayed a remarkable inertia and resistance to change.

Google’s “creepy” Gmail has thus far scared off few besides dedicated privacy zealots, Orkut’s T’s & C’s have caused less controversy than might be expected, and the company that’s mission is to “not be evil” has also withstood the usual IPO = sell-out backlash. Microsoft, on the other hand, is still on what is a seemingly permanent probation for its past business practices.

Now I’m not here to convince you that Google is evil, or that Microsoft has been successfully rehabilitated from its anti-competitive ways. More to the point, I very much doubt anything I could say here would make much of a difference. Such emotional distinctions are not particularly responsive to objective, rational arguments. You can’t “Get the Facts” on trust.

But what is interesting to me is that the conventional wisdom here may be obscuring an interesting trend, which has the organizations headed in opposite directions. To wit, a few selected quotations:

1. Anil Dash:

That may be, but I can’t help but think this [reference] is also a defensive moved, based on leveraging one of the assets they have against Microsoft in the search war: Trust. Google still has a good enough reputation that some of the finest institutions in the world will trust their knowledge and assets to a publicly held company. That’s astonishing, especially given the anti-corporate slant that a lof of universities have. (link)

2. Dave Winer

Another way of looking at it: What if Microsoft were doing what Google is doing? Of course we wouldn’t let them do it without a very serious and probably very shrill examination. Well, I’m telling you, Google today is as dangerous as Microsoft, and I wouldn’t bet on their trustworthyness, not without a lot more light having been shed on this. The technology industry is built on a foundation of arrogance and disdain for users. Google is too. You may not have seen it yet, but I have. (link)

3. Jon Udell

I think that stewardship of so much of our private as well as public information requires a lot more transparency than Google currently practices. For example, on the day that MSN Search was announced I pointed to a funny but tasteless prank that Google News played on Microsoft. Are we really supposed to believe that an algorithm chose that unflattering photo of Bill Gates? Of course it didn’t. But how can we know for sure? (link)

4. Scott Rosenberg

As long as Google’s amazing project puts more knowledge in more hands and heads, who could object? But in this area, taking the long view is not just smart — it’s ethically essential. So as details of Google’s project emerge, it will be important not just to rely on Google’s assurances but to keep an eye out for public guarantees of access, freedom of expression and limits to censorship. (link)

The important points I draw from the above are the following: a.) Google is still trusted, but that trust is eroding due to its opaque behavior, and b.) Microsoft is still not trusted, and its every behavior will continue to be scrutinized.

I’m sure many of you could come up with evidence to support or attack the above, but just look at one of the areas where this is playing out – blogs. Microsoft has gotten blogging religion in a major way, with literally thousands of employees blogging. Google, on the other hand, has not. This makes Microsoft more transparent – and thus, in an indirect sense – trustworthy, than the “trust us, we’re good” guys at Google.

With rare exceptions like Joe Beda and Adam Bosworth, Google is one of the least transparent technology companies around today. And Beda’s blog I think says it all:

I’m a software developer living in Seattle and working for Google. I can’t really talk about *what* I’m working on at Google quite yet. I used to work at Microsoft on Avalon, Longhorn and IE.

The problem for Google, I think, will come as they amass more and more information – personal (link, link) and otherwise, because along with that information stewardship comes grave responsibility, as Jon Udell noted here (MP3 link). Thus far, Google has shown little to indicate that they recognize the serious nature of their information management role, although to be fair, small things like Gmail’s POP support indicate they at least understand the importance of an exit strategy.

I’ve written many times about the promise of Google’s technical vision – as articulated by Bosworth – in delivering rich application functionality over the network. As you’ve all gathered by now, I believe in that vision strongly. It’s important to remember, however, that the technical ability to deliver such functionality is only part of the equation. Longer term, trust is far more important, and much harder to maintain.

What all of this says, I think, is that Google is nearing a crossroads in determining its future path. They can take the Microsoft fork – and face the same scrutiny Microsoft does, or they can learn what the folks from Redmond have: trust is hard to earn, easy to lose, and nearly impossible to win back.

One comment

  1. Nowhere in the press have any librarians or academics expressed concerns about privacy issues connected with this library project. Google has the capacity, the history, and the intention of tracking the browsing habits of anyone and everyone who visits any of their sites. Since its inception, Google has used a cookie with a unique ID in it that expires in 2038. They record this ID, along with the IP address, the search terms, and a time/date stamp, for everyone who searches at Google. To make matters worse, Google never comments on their relations with officials in the dozens of countries where they operate.

    Moreover, they can be very misleading about this tracking. When Gmail was launched last April, a Google vice-president initially claimed that there would be an information firewall between Gmail and Google's tracking on their main index search. Within three months, however, after the press interest receded, Google revised their main privacy policy to comply with a new California law. In it they confessed that a single cookie is used across all of their various services, and all information is shared between them. ( see http://www.google-watch.org/gcook.html )

    I am asking the American Library Association to address the issue of privacy in cases where search engine digitization projects are proposed to libraries. Beth Givens from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Pam Dixon from the World Privacy Forum, and Chris Hoofnagle from EPIC are helping me with this. Here is a letter I wrote to Mitch Freedman: http://www.google-watch.org/appeal.html

    If you can help us get the word out on this issue, it would be much appreciated.

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