You may be wondering why this month’s PowerPoint slide isn’t the usual chart of some kind. After
all the name of my website is data plus insight isn’t it? But data can take many forms and this
month’s PowerPoint is an example of visual data. In fact it’s a unique piece of data designed for me
or, more accurately, it purports to be specifically made for me, although of course this is just an
illusion. That’s right, recently Google generated a “happy birthday” search page for the twenty four
hours of the anniversary of my arrival on this planet. For one day only I was served the cup cakes
and candles Google doodle, complete with hover text proclaiming “Happy Birthday Mike,” every
time I visited Google’s search page. Now that’s a very neat trick.
Quite likely you’ve also seen the Google birthday doodle on your special day, although some people
don’t actually notice the different doodles, because typing straight into the Google search box and
moving on is such an automatic reflex. But if you have seen the birthday doodle I hope you were
as delighted as me. Although at the same time I was also a bit perturbed by such a raw display of
technological power. Every day a comparatively tiny number of the three billion or more searches
made by people using Google are served this birthday search page, complete with the personal
salutation. You might think that Google’s birthday greeting is not very different to receiving an
email from a personalised marketing campaign, so why should I feel uneasy? But the thing is I’ve
been using Google’s search engine for about 17 to 18 years and I don’t remember when, or even if,
I’ve ever given Google my birth date. Of course nowadays, like most people, I use a much wider
range of Google’s software products so the information could have been gleaned from my Gmail
account, my Google Calendar, or my Android phone, or it’s even possible that I was asked for it
when I paid money into my Google Voice account. I just can’t recall. In fact these four are just a
small sample of the Google products I use - much of my news snacking comes via Google’s
Newsstand app on my mobile phone. So if Google wants to it could (and very possibly does) record
which news sources and stories I select to read.
The point is that from my past searches, my mobile phone location history, and even the details on
the train and airline tickets I buy which automatically get sent to my calendar and email, Google
knows an awful lot about me. Clearly enough to start to make me feel a little uneasy. But the crux
of the matter is that however disturbed I feel about this behemoth I continue to use its services
because it’s just too darn useful. I’m clearly not alone, so many people in the Western (i.e.
American dominated) world feel just like me. At a recent Google AGM Eric Schmidt, the Executive
Chairman of Alphabet, the holding company, said that Google has seven products with more than
one billion users – Chrome, Maps, YouTube, Gmail, Android, Play Store and Search. And it promises
to increase its users by being ever more useful in the future. At a Code Conference in January this
year, Sundor Pichai, Google’s Chief Executive, noted that people need information at an expanding
rate and one in five searches on Android phones now happen by voice. Google’s goal is to provide
a genuinely helpful assistant that's capable of understanding context. This is an area where a big
change has happened in the past two or three years, and systems are now much better at
understanding the context and situation. But Pichai said a lot of work needs to be done to make
the system really conversational but the aim is to effectively provide each user with "their own
individual Google." As for privacy, Pichai explained that the onus is on Google to offer the right
benefits that will make it worthwhile for users to give the company their personal information. For
example, he noted how Photos offers to store a user’s photos and allow them to search and
organize them in their own way, and he said that users reacted well to that.
An example which indicates just how many people are reliant on Google happened almost three
years ago on Friday, 16th August 2013. That was the day when 70% of Google’s servers hit a glitch
for between one to five minutes. During that brief period global Internet traffic dropped by about
40%, and when you consider that Google has virtually no presence in China, that’s quite something.
That fleeting incident was also a testament to how efficient Google’s recovery systems are. The
outage was limited to such a transitory time due to the awesome computer systems and software
Google has and continues to develop. A key part of this organisation is a global database system
called Spanner which was designed to scale up to millions of machines across hundreds of data-
centres and trillions of database rows. In computer jargon Spanner “shards” or scatters data
across multiple data centres situated around the world so that our Gmails, or Google calendars, are
replicated and backed up across multiple geographic locations so that if a Google data centre goes
offline for any reason our data is automatically retrieved from a live site probably situated in
another country. It’s extraordinary that this vast setup, the world’s largest scale computer system
with all its associated data centres, has been paid for solely from advertising revenue. Apart from
that one to five minute incident in 2013 Google’s systems have a reliability superior to almost every
other global organisation – including governments and the banks. And we humans are all happily
hooked in by such wondrous levels of reliability as, above all, we don’t want to think about it - we
want digital things to just work and not waste our time.
Doing something useful extremely well has proved to be a highly successful business strategy and,
as Google has developed ever more valuable products over the years, it’s naturally managed to
accumulate a gigantic amount of information about everyone who uses its services. And I’ve
seldom met anyone in Europe who doesn’t use Google. In fact so popular is its search engine that
the term is used as a verb – to Google, like saying “I’m going to hoover” when about to use a
vacuum cleaner. In the last 120 years only a handful of brands have ever achieved this iconic
status, and Google is up there with them. Such staggering digital success has logically led to a
monopoly. In the U.K. last month Google’s search engine market share was 87%, and Android
(Google’s mobile phone software) market share was 59% and steadily rising.
Great domination begets great power and so far, with the odd tiny exception, Google has used its
stupendous digital power relatively benignly. The company has a philanthropic side and through
its Google.org charity annually donates $100 million in grants and 200,000 hours of its own
workers’ time as well as providing $1 billion in free Google products and services to non-profit
companies and registered charities. Established liberally-biased news, human rights and election
websites can also seek free protection from cyber-attacks using Google’s infrastructure under its
Jigsaw initiative “Project Shield.”
Unfortunately Google isn’t all cute and cuddly, there’s a darker side that includes mastery of
offshore tax avoidance - tantamount to evasion. Without transparency laws on lobbying we don’t
know how much Google spends wooing the government in the U.K., after the U.S. its second most
profitable market. However, when I was a member of the Government All-Party IT Committee it
was obvious that many MPs and Lords, plus their families, were enjoying lavish hospitality on
supposedly fact-finding jaunts to Google’s Californian HQ. In the U.K non-tech-savvy politicians are
in awe of Google and have little idea of how the company operates. Eric Schmidt, the Executive
Chairman of Alphabet, Google’s holding company, was appointed by the Prime Minister, David
Cameron, to his Business Advisory Council, and Baroness Joanna Shields, Google’s former U.K.
Managing Director, , was made Minister for Internet Safety. Since 2005 Google has hired no fewer
than 28 British public officials from 17 government departments including Downing Street, the
Treasury, the Home Office, and the Department for Education as well as the Department for
Transport. You can check the scale of Google’s diplomatic efforts using this link to The Google
Transparency Project. Clearly all this was money very well spent as Google received a derisory
back-tax bill from the U.K. of just £100 million for the nine years from 2005 through to 2014. Such
slippery tax wangling is something the French Government is determined to crack down on. France
is chasing $1.78 billion in back taxes with Finance Minister Michel Tapin stating scornfully: "We
don't do deals like Britain, we apply the law."
Google spends around $17 million a year lobbying in the U.S. where it is the fifth largest spender
bent on catching the ear of congress to influence government decisions. Snuggling up as closely as
possible to governments to press its point of view in the U.K., the U.S., and the EU, is all part of
Google’s power strategy. And that strategy has proved very effective. Even when Google breaks the
law, for example when it intentionally bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser, it didn’t
get a fine. That case ended with the company being, in effect, merely put on probation by the U.S.
Government. Such monopolistic power has boundless influence.
So Google has gone well beyond its original motto of “do no evil.” It’s now in a “do as we ask”
phase but who can say where this will lead? Its lobbying efforts have helped it avoid having to pay
unquantifiable billions of dollars in tax, and, despite its philanthropy, this indicates that above
everything else, the company is concerned about making and holding onto unimaginably vast sums
of money. I recognised that Google was greedy back in 2008 when I was a consultant for an
Internet media agency that was Google’s largest U.K. customer. I observed that Google frequently
turned on keywords for a short time to trigger text advertising (AdWords) that were useless from an
advertiser’s point of view but increased Google’s quarterly revenue.
Google’s present fiscal shenanigans certainly shows that it isn’t behaving like an ethical company in
the countries in which it does business. Its only concern appears to be for its U.S. shareholders.
And they are very few indeed: there are just three or four shareholders who have the responsibility
for making all the important decisions for this gargantuan company, and that’s because of the way
Google’s voting rights have been structured. With an official global annual revenue so far of some
$74.5 billion Google already has income larger than many nation states and obviously seems to be
focussed on amassing ever more. This really gives us all something to think about. Given that
much of the next war between developed world powers will almost certainly take place in
cyberspace, which organisation is better placed in terms of technology and global infrastructure to
assert supremacy than Google? As each and every nation becomes increasingly dependent on the
Internet and mobile phones Google may not continue to be so benign. And it may not be content
with just being avaricious. I only recently became aware that Google records every voice search
that I’ve ever made on my Android smart-phone. Check out your Google voice and audio history,
and if you can’t find the right page just type that phrase into Google – scary isn’t it? We had better
all cross our digital fingers and hope that those three or four omnipotent Google shareholders are
really on the side of the angels.
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