A New Short Story Imagines
Google as a Bad Big Brother
September 26, 2007
In science-fiction author Cory Doctorow's short story "Scroogled," a woman shrugs when she sees "Immigration--Powered by Google" on an airport sign, but that's just the beginning of the search giant's presence in a not-too-distant future.
The story, published in Radar Magazine's latest issue, envisions a world in which Google turns into Big Brother. Customs agents grill travelers about their search queries, public places are swept by Webcams and officials look for terrorist connections in social-networking sites. All of this is made possible by Google's powerful search tools and the company's willingness to share its trove of personal data with the government.
While a work of fiction, Mr. Doctorow, 36 years old, one of the editors of the popular blog Boing Boing, said his story builds on his real concerns about the amount of information that Google and others collect and store about Web users, including search histories, email and videos. Its publication has sparked online discussions about online privacy and the plausibility of Mr. Doctorow's scenario.
Asked about the Orwellian story, a Google spokeswoman responded: "Google is proud to offer a range of innovative products that have proven to be both useful and trusted by our users. User trust is central to our business and that's why we aggressively protect our users' privacy."
Mr. Doctorow spoke with The Wall Street Journal's Andrew LaVallee about "Scroogled," why he's fond of Google despite his dystopian tale and why it's hard to get people worried about online privacy.
WSJ.com: How did you get the idea for the story?
Mr. Doctorow: Well, [Radar] asked me to write it. They were doing an issue, and they emailed me and said that we're thinking of commissioning some science fiction on this subject. And certainly it was something that I'd given a lot of thought to over the years.
I actually have a great deal of affection for Google, by and large, although like any large organization, it's hard to speak of Google as one thing. It's really lots and lots of things, some of them very good, some of them less good.
But on balance, I think most of the things that Google does are good. I think one of the most heartbreaking things that any of us can live through is for an institution that we love to change in a way that makes us hate it. So it seemed to me that this would be a great opportunity to write something of dramatic note, something that would work as a story.
WSJ.com: How much of it do you consider fiction versus prediction?
Mr. Doctorow: It's not prediction as much as a scenario. It's a scenario about how Google could be co-opted. There are much more banal ways that Google could be co-opted. Larry [Page] and Sergei [Brin] could retire and decide to spend all their time on their party jet. And the business could be slowly but surely taken over by a kind of managerial cast who have very traditional ideas about doing what's best for the shareholders but without regard to what's best for the world, and the sometimes already too-thin barrier between profitability and ethical behavior would just erode in a way that would, over time, make it just another company.
WSJ.com: Are there signs of that at Google? Are they doing something that concerns you?
Mr. Doctorow: Sure, absolutely, there have been lots of signs of that. I mean, one of the things that I think is in Google's DNA is a real tension about, on the one hand, being good to people, but on the other hand, acquiring as much information about them as they can, under the rubric that it allows them to be better to people.
And it does, a lot of the time. There are lots of ways in which Google knowing more about you makes Google better for you. But without much regard to what's happening in the world around us, in an era in which the national security apparatus has turned into a kind of lumbering, savage, giant toddler, it behooves us to not leave things within arm's reach that it might stick in its mouth. And that includes things like my search history. And I'd prefer that Google not be storing a lot of that stuff, especially today, especially after Patriot [Act] and so on. They're inviting abuse, I think, by doing that. The steps you don't save can't be subpoenaed. And by saving them, Google is inviting a subpoena.
So Google's always had this kind of "We will collect all your information, and it will belong to us, and you won't be able to take it away, but it's OK because we'll only do good things for you" attitude, and that's a bit of a problem.
WSJ.com: Is it hard to get people concerned about these sorts of things?
Mr. Doctorow: I think that people are really bad at valuing their privacy. More than anything else, I think privacy is the hardest one. By and large, we undervalue future privacy breaches. It's a little like [digital rights management], in that privacy breaches only harm you long after you have compromised. You buy Google videos, and for the moment, you're watching videos. You've got a library of Star Trek videos, it's great! And then six months later Google comes over to your house and takes all your videos away. At that point it's too late to go back in time and say I'm going to boycott this product because it's got DRM on it.
A similar phenomenon happens with privacy, where we say, all right, yes, incrementally collect my searches, do lots of analysis on my email, cross-link my email with my search habits. Cross-link my search habits with my RSS reader, my photos, my social network and the rest of it. By all means, one after another, because all of these things incrementally improve my life and my experience, until there's a terrible privacy breach resulting from it. I think that collecting all that information in one place is just a bad idea, generally speaking.
I had a really interesting meeting a couple of years ago with some of the [chief information officers] of Danish ministries. We sat down to talk about data interoperability and document retention. Document retention's a really thorny one, because hard drives are cheap, and governments don't really understand why they shouldn't just save everything. Who knows when it will be useful? I started to talk to them about this, and a gentleman put his hand up and said you know, you may need to talk to people in other countries about this, but you don't need to talk to the Danes about this.
Because after the Nazis occupied Copenhagen, they went down to the police station and got from the files all the addresses of the people they wanted to round up and stick in boxcars, and they took them away. We don't retain anything here. As soon as we're done with it, we throw it away because we understand that you can't always predict how information will be used, and the only way to ensure it's not misused is to get rid of it when you're done with it.
I think it's important to note here that what makes Google Google, what makes them such a good target for this stuff, is that they make the best search product on the market. They are so important to all of our lives that it's vital that we start thinking about what they mean and how they work, and what it could mean to have that much power concentrated into just a few hands. And what will happen down the road if the company's culture changes.
I mean, we don't need to have this discussion about search engines that no one uses. We don't need to have this discussion about Ask, or MSN Search, because they just don't have enough market share to matter.
WSJ.com: On Boing Boing, you and the other bloggers take up certain causes, like DRM and copyright law. Is it a meaningful soapbox? Is it having an effect?
Mr. Doctorow: We helped take down a member of Parliament in Canada last year. That was pretty cool. It was a member of Parliament who had a terrible conflict of interest over her stance on copyright, and she lost her seat after we and a group of activists outed her for taking money from the people she was supposed to be regulating. She was a multi-term incumbent who had every chance of getting back into office. That's just one example of many, many, many. There are lots of ways in which we've made changes.
My fiancee's laptop had broken down and she had a Sony warranty that supposedly guaranteed her next-day onsite service. They said they wouldn't service it anymore. She said why not, and it was a long story, but basically they said the guy who came out and broke it last time, because he had to come out two times, that used up your two service calls for this year even though he didn't end up fixing it, and therefore you don't get any more service. It was a six-month-old laptop…. So she wrote about it, and I re-blogged about it, and three hours later, five Sony VPs sitting around a speakerphone called her up and said how can we make this right for you? We solve problems for lots of people this way.
Write to Andrew LaVallee at firstname.lastname@example.org