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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
They brought it on themselves. A long time ago, Google was just a cool and really comprehensive web search engine that a couple of guys at Stanford dreamed up. Back when Alta Vista was the hottest thing, Google crept onto the Web radar and eventually eclipsed all its search engine competitors.
This led from Google, the cool idea, to Google, the high-dollar corporation. When establishing their corporate identity, it was Google who averred that their corporate philosophy was to "do no evil." This still survives in their corporate philosophy as, "You can make money without doing evil."
Google, the online search engine, is now Google, the online everything. Everything you need to find information, shop, entertain yourself, be productive, and communicate. And the best part is that it's all free. Of course, so is the popcorn at many a neighborhood bar, so forgive me if I am somewhat skeptical of Google's motives in pursuing a business model that apparently generates no revenue directly from the majority of those who utilize the services which are provided. But, you have to admire the audacity of that business model.
While I've always been a fan of Google's web search service and can't get by without Google Maps, I have resisted the allure of GMail or the many other services they offer. Recently, however, I was interested in Google Docs, a service to allow you to create and store documents online. The first thing I did was to read Google's terms of service. I was surprised to find something, which although not downright evil, was somewhat disconcerting.
Right there, tucked in under number 11 is the provision that while you get to retain ownership of your intellectual property, Google retains "a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services." In other words, if it passes through anything Google, they retain permanent rights to use it however they please without compensating you.
Google explains this clause as follows: 'We need to ensure that when you click the "Publish document" button, or use the "Invite collaborators" option, we have the license to carry out your wishes." Not exactly, because back in the terms of service, it states that this is for "enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services", i.e. mostly for self promotion. This does not seem to be a completely honest explanation on Google's part. The next paragraph allows Google to make your intellectual property "available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships" based on your consent to the terms of service.
It is interesting to note what rights Google allows you in regard to their intellectual property. This is covered in item 9 where you agree that Google owns "any intellectual property rights which subsist in the Services" and agree not to disclose any confidential information without their prior written consent. Apparently, this is a right they wish to reserve for themselves.
You might say that Google has to get something in return for all that free space and service they are providing. I would agree. But is the exchange a fair and even (and non-evil) trade? At face value it would seem that your individual e-mail would be of relatively little monetary worth. A whole lot of people's e-mail, mined for current trends and preferences, would seem to be more useful for conversion into commercial currency. But once you enter the realm of documents and creative works, the stakes would seem to change.
It is ideas which built the value of the Internet and you can't anticipate the value of ideas. Today's submarine patents can cost technology companies millions or billions of dollars if enforced. You can't anticipate the future value of your idea, but you've already ceded Google free use of whatever that may be, perhaps the next "Google."
I'm reminded of a previous analogy which appeared in this column:
You might say that Google is providing a service in exchange for a right -- a simple commercial transaction. Feudal lords allowed serfs to farm their land in exchange for their labor or a share of their harvest -- a simple commercial transaction, except when you examine who held the power. Google "allows" us to farm their virtual lands, but who holds the power in that relationship?
So please don't blame me for suggesting that Google is not all non-evil. It was the company, in their SEC filings, that suggested they would hold themselves to a higher standard. Yet although their corporate philosophy includes the tenet that, "The need for information crosses all borders", they don't hold to that truth where the border to China is concerned.
I don't blame Google for maximizing their position in pursuing the business interests. However, I also think a higher standard would be for Google to explain their interests up front, rather than burying things in item 11 of a service agreement that they know most people will not read. You can make money without doing evil, but first you have to want to do so.