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June 13, 2006

Where’s the line?

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Someone asked me last week if Google was evil. Without thinking I responded, “No, [insert name of prominent search engine] is evil”. I even rattled off a few reasons as to why this other engine was evil and Google was not. I felt pretty confident about my answer. In fact, I still do. I don’t believe that Google is evil, but the last few launches and rumored-to-be-in-the-works announcements got me thinking.

How did Google gain my trust? And is it possible I trust them just a little too much?

We started hearing rumblings of something called Interactive TV late last week. See if you can wrap your head around this. Google Research has developed a prototype where by using your home computer’s internal microphone, Google can listen to the ambient noise in a room, figure out what you’re watching, and then present you ads on your computer to match the content.

What? Does that creep you out like it does me? Why would I want Google in my living room? Listening to not only what I’m watching, but presumably, also my conversations. Do they need to hear me sweet talking my kitten out of the dishwasher every night? What happens when the DOJ starts going after Google for user’s conversations? And even besides all the Big Brother implications, why would I want to be presented with even more commercial advertisements. Just because technology is available, does that make it right?

What about Google’s Synch Firefox Toolbar? The deal here is you download this useful Firefox extension and Google will let you ‘synch’ all your computers. This includes creating one common set of history files, cookies, bookmarks and recording all passwords. Have users really become so lazy and disoriented that they need Google to remember all of their passwords for them? I understand it can be difficult sometimes, but why not just imprint identity barcodes on our foreheads and opt-in to have Google scan them? It all seems a bit extreme.

And maybe that’s it. It all seems so extreme and so unnecessary. In reference to GBuy, a service that will give Google unprecedented knowledge about what you buy and who you’re buying it from, John Battelle blogged he wasn’t sure users were ready to trust Google with their payments. I disagree. I think the average user will be more than happy to hand over even more personal information to Google. I think most people would give Google their original birth certificate if they asked for it and it meant never having to remember anything on their own ever again.

Google is not evil, but there’s a middle ground between being evil and being altruistic. I would never give Microsoft or Yahoo! the amount of information that I give Google.

I trust Google, laugh off Yahoo! and fear Microsoft Why? Because I grew up hearing about Microsoft’s anti-trust trouble, I still associate Yahoo! with Geocities and Google was the trendier, always free engine of choice. They established themselves as the superior search and then began systematically working their way into my life. They gave me a better image search, news search, Christmas gift finder (Froogle), and more recently email, a blog, calendar, word processor and a spreadsheet. Google’s my buddy.

But they are my buddy who watches my surfing behavior, reads my email and keeps track of everything I search for. And that’s something users should keep in mind before they hand over all of their unique information to their buddy Google. Before you invite them into your home, remember Google is a business.

Granted, if it wasn’t Google reading my email, it would be someone else. But the point is it’s not. Google is the keeper of my everything. They told me they do no evil and I believed them. The Dark Side is all around me and Google keeps me safe and warm in the light. It’s perhaps the most genius branding strategy of all time.

This is earth shattering I know, but it is possible they will release something you should pass on. If Interactive TV ever becomes a reality, perhaps you shouldn’t rush over to be part of the test group. If there’s a Let Google Raise Your Baby beta, perhaps you want to hold on to your drooling infant. At least until he’s old enough to backtalk.

As a user, what information are you really willing to make public? How willing are you to invite Google the Business into your home. And more importantly, why are you willing?

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