February 18, 2011
Google and the GovernmentBy Bernie Reeves
That the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog is accusing the Obama administration of a "cozy" relationship with the Internet behemoth Google is hardly a surprise. I remember there were two Google executives on the speaker's platform in Chicago when Barack Obama appeared after winning the White House, a tribute to Google's assistance in helping his campaign raise millions of dollars in small contributions online.
I doubt Obama's organization could have raised all that money without Google. And I understand payback to contributors to an acceptable degree. But when the donor is Google, the largest non-governmental repository of information about citizens ever imagined, the payback takes on new dimensions. Consumer Watchdog is calling for a Congressional investigation of Google's close relationship with the National Security Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense and other government agencies -- and questioning the actions of White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, the former head of global public policy for Google.
At the core of the complaints is the concern that the sacred doctrine of "openness," the organizing principle of the Internet, is being violated by Google via its relationship with the government. The two together appear to be engaged in clandestine and undisclosed projects, but who really believes that Google or the government will divulge their motives and operations? I don't know anyone who can describe exactly what Google does anyway -- and for sure the NSA is not about to say anything.
These issues are troublesome, but there is another problem. Google is politically slanted, leaning leftward in its public stances on gay rights and the environment -- and cemented by their total commitment to Obama's presidential campaign. I had my own confrontation with Google from 2002 to 2003 as a victim of the penchant to use their power to discredit those that didn't agree with their agenda. When entering my name in the Google search box, the usual directory of choices was replaced by a full screen shot of a hard Left web site featuring attacks on me. Worse, the negative comments were patently false, verified by comments to the site defending my views.
My correspondence with Google was an instructive lesson in obfuscation. The company explained that the site attacking me was receiving high rankings from users. I found that ludicrous. It was an effort to classify references to me in a negative light. I doubt Google central office was responsible, but someone within the organization was, more than likely influenced by the web site attacking me. I spent money on lawyers, and finally references under my name were listed the same as anyone else -- and the offending web site didn't make the cut.
Fortunately, the complaints by Consumer Watchdog are capturing the attention of Congressman Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who represents the new breed of Republican cost-cutters swept into office last November. It was Issa who wrote a letter to Google about the role of technology advisor McLaughlin, and he certainly is not on the side of a company that had a lot to do with the election of Obama and flexes its muscles on Capitol Hill to keep the Net "open and free" as a cover to maintain their dominant position on the web -- and the attendant political power -- unregulated.
Answers to the complaints are not likely to surface -- despite Consumer Watchdog's purchase of a 540 sq. ft. video screen in Times Square to complain about Google: We are living in a world too complicated to understand, run by organizations too big to manage who can keep secrets locked in the vastness of their scope and scale. Google's founders and their breed paid lip service to the idealistic goals outlined by the founders of the Internet to be open and free to head off a take-over of the new technology by AT&T or other existing communications giants. All that blather opened the door for new communication giants, most notably Google, that functions as a secretive virtual monopoly with more power and arrogance than AT&T in its golden years before it was broken up by court action in the 1990s.
At least AT&T paid lip service to pre-digital age ethics. Google and the new breed of communications monoliths were founded -- and run today -- by youngish executives representing the first graduating classes from universities that ignored the inheritance of 2000 years of western civilization and the requirement of ethics and morality in society. Lacking a value system, the new technobrats rarely heeded the necessity of fair dealing as they ventured into the uncharted realm of the Internet.
Individuals and business people who have dealt with web practitioners can testify to the unsavory way they do business. Agreements and contracts are never what they claim. Since the web community knows the Latin of the new technology - which adds new terms constantly - customers are ill-prepared to ask the right questions, ending up in a swamp of changing contract terms and additional costs. Once a client signs on, they are stuck in the tar baby and can't get loose. The web firm owns the codes and controls the dissemination of your brand. If a customer wants out, he can't wriggle free without losing archival material and current content. It's the wild, wild west dominated by lawless gunslingers who run the new digital towns springing up along the information highway.
I can testify to blatant theft by web masters. Two maintained they owned the content of my company's magazines because they placed the data online. One purposefully sabotaged the site (twice) when I attempted to change web vendors. One of my employees signed his name to the web agreement in an effort to steal the brand. And many web users have discovered their domain names are routinely stolen hoping the rightful owner will pay a ransom to get it back. There is the sense web operators see themselves as masters of the universe by claiming ownership of proprietary client content. And once they have you, it's their way or they will close you down.
An old saw says that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. The general picture of the new digital robber barons depicts nerds with an attitude, unfettered by ethical considerations, gunning each other down in suburban garages and college dorms. The excellent film Social Network has emerged as the blockbuster biopic of the Internet era by zeroing in on Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, a real-life case study of the persona; a geek who desires to be accepted in stylish society, in this case Harvard University. You have to look hard to identify one scruple in his behavior as he throws down the gauntlet to seek acceptance by hacking into the personal files of female students to create "smashbook", an online beauty contest that allows male students to comment on and rank contestants by appearance or carnal knowledge.
The female students are transformed into livestock, non-sentient sex objects who accept their role as meat for the taking. Perhaps the screenwriters, adapting the book The Accidental Billionaires, added the bit about Zuckerberg starting his project in revenge against a girl friend who broke up with him to make it seem the female students in the online parade were victims. I don't think so. With females outnumbering males in society, and even more on college campuses, the macro human organism is reacting to the reality there aren't enough boys to go round, causing girls to give up the façade of resistance to sexual exploitation.
Thus the founding motivations for what would become Facebook, valued today at $50 billion, were a mixture of revenge, social climbing, sex, lots of alcohol and criminal hacking into private records. Yet, there is this bravado exuded by Zuckerberg that he is doing something noble and useful, vindicated soon after the launch by the realization that he didn't have to steal personal information. Students -- and later the outside world -- are willing to volunteer intimate details of their lives on a continuous basis. The ignoble core principles of his project actually appeal to visitors to his site, who roll in by the millions, creating another dimension of the Internet gilded age: acrimony and lawsuits.
In this cowardly new world, having an idea sets innovators up for the inevitable theft of their original concepts - first by the nerds who know the geeky Latin of codes and logarithms of online engineering, and then by the vulture capitalists who provide the cash to keep the bubble expanding. Two Harvard twin brothers had the same idea as Zuckerberg and realized they needed his computer skills. They asked him to partner with them, but Zuckerberg slyly slipped away with the project. A lawsuit ensued, and forms the basis of the flashback technique of the film. Another legal action is filed by Zuckerberg's only friend, who used his family's wealth to fund the company, only to be ostracized and dumped.
In Act 111 of this Geek Tragedy (in which the hero is a cowardly, dishonest and unattractive dweeb rather than a king or hero), Zuckerberg is enamored with another Internet bandito, Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, the program that stole copyrighted songs off the Internet. Parker is the evolved species of the digital hooligan, who knows how to attract investors from Silicon Valley to provide the enterprise with big money -- the rocket fuel that lifts Facebook into the stratosphere where it remains today, out of reach and safely in orbit. Goldman Sachs recently bought a hunk of their stock, stamping the imprimatur of Wall Street, which triggers even more investment and higher and higher stock prices.
But be assured we will never know entirely how Google and Facebook operate, and just what they are doing with the private data they collect. My first take is that these online pioneers are basing their business model on Publishers Clearinghouse that appears to make money selling magazine subscriptions. Instead, they are really after updated mailing addresses to sell to direct mail marketing firms. Google and Facebook are saying they make money selling ads (a la magazine subscriptions) but it appears they may be actually peddling email addresses and IP profiles to online direct marketers. Since magazine subscriptions are chump change and online ads go for pennies, these façades may be a front. But admitting what they might be up to wouldn't be "cool" -- the goal Internet grandees strive to achieve.
Now that government and Google are joined at the hip creating a huge mass of personal information and power that diminishes the integrity of the individual, lines from the book Koba The Dread by Martin Amis about Stalin come to mind, written by a Soviet dissident:
Bernie Reeves is editor and publisher of Raleigh Metro Magazine and Founder of the Raleigh Spy Conference.