Open Letter to Google’s Larry Page

Video courtesy of Botgirl Questi

Dear Larry,

I don’t remember your handle in the days you were an active participant of the USENET, over a decade ago, when “web crawlers” and “search engines” were interesting mathematical problems to be tackled. To be honest, I don’t even remember my own handle those days. But what I remember very clearly is RFC 1855. Those days, we all abided by the Netiquette — or faced banning — and one of the rules, which everybody accepted, was 4.1.2, which states on its last paragraphs:

– Don’t badger other users for personal information such as sex, age, or location. After you have built an acquaintance with another user, these questions may be more appropriate, but many people hesitate to give this information to people with whom they are not familiar.

– If a user is using a nickname alias or pseudonym, respect that user’s desire for anonymity. Even if you and that person are close friends, it is more courteous to use his nickname. Do not use that person’s real name online without permission.

Privacy mattered in those days, even considering that the ‘net was such a small place (only 10 million web pages by the time you launched your first Google prototype! How many are stored on your servers’ memory these days? In 2008 or 2009, I believe it was over 6 billion pages). But there was a whole atitude that was part of being a netizen — a citizen of the Internet. And you and Sergey embodied that atitude quite well on the “Ten things we know to be true” philosophy for Google: namely, 1. Focus on the user and all else will follow and, more importantly, 6. You can make money without doing evil. The do-no-evil policy has been pretty much the trademark of Google over the time, and is still what makes Google and Google’s products and services unique: to the best of my knowledge, no other company has stated that so clearly and stuck to it for so many years as a fundamental principle in their business relationships.

Scarp Godenot in giant Yoa Ogee mechanical skeleton dinosaur avatar

I haven’t registered with Google for an account since the very early days, where pretty much the only significant service was Gmail; nevertheless, since the earliest “beta” search engine was released by you guys, I never felt the urge to use any other search engine. I’ve signed up with Gmail in September 2005 or so, not really because I needed the service (I run several servers and have plenty of mailboxes in them), but because even though Google was already a giant back then, I still felt that supporting your efforts would be great. Since then, you have added so many products and services that I cannot claim to have used all of them, but certainly a large part of them; and in my professional activity as an IT consultant, I actively recommend clients to switch over to Google — like dozens of millions of other IT professionals.

As an eager Second Life resident (user), when launching my own Second Life-related services and products, I found the amazing ability to precisely target Google AdSense ads to my intended audience very valuable. In the early days of Second Life, there were few websites with information and news about Second Life, so I attracted some traffic — enough for Google Ads to finance not only my website’s annual lease, but the costs of maintaining a Premium account with Linden Lab, Second Life’s creators. What was very important for me was the ability to show Second Life-related ads on all the sites I run, and, conversely, to make sure that my own ads would appear on other Second Life-related sites. Your service allowed that very easily, because Google users who happened to be Second Life users were so easily identified: their Google Profiles would tell the whole story. Now, Second Life users are a 20-million-user market. Small, yes, when seen at a global scale; but not that small. My own country, Portugal, has just half that amount of inhabitants (and not everyone is — yet — connected to the Internet). In fact, only 50 countries in the world have more than 20 million inhabitants, and that never prevented you to make business with countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, or Ireland, just to name a few. The vast majority of those Second Life users — certainly not all, of course, but a huge proportion — have Gmail addresses, and thus Google Accounts as well.

When you launched Lively, it was quite interesting to see that the majority of early users were all Second Life users. When you launched Wave and now Google Plus, I wasn’t surprised any longer with the sheer amount of Second Life users who immediately joined the service: Second Life users, in general, are always eager early adopters. And my, are they vocal! Allegedly, Plurk only remains in activity because it’s one social network favoured by Second Life users, which use it all the time. Since Second Life is effectively the only remaining three-dimensional social virtual world in existence (a statement that might be contested by some, but I will still stick to that claim), no wonder that its users are eminently social. And they use the Internet a lot: so much that Treet.TV, a streaming video network which provides video content around the clock only for Second Life users, claims to have as many or more viewers than several channel networks. Borrowing the words of Linden Lab’s CEO, Rod Humble, there is a whole ecosystem out there which is spun around Second Life. Second Life is merely the pretext, not the main reason for people to get together, meet, and exchange information — publicly. And that information gets shared throughout the world using all sorts of technologies — even in the academic world, since Second Life is a very active area of research.

One of my personal areas of interest is integration. It was with great eagerness that I managed to integrate Google’s translation services with some Second Life objects (these days, the Second Life viewer, as well as most derivative viewers, all include Google translation for in-world chat). And Linden Lab dropped their own internal search engine and opted to buy a Google Search Appliance instead. So there is definitely a lot going on between Google, Second Life, and Linden Lab; many, including myself, even joked about a possible acquisition of Linden Lab by Google. Mostly because of Google’s “do no evil” stance, the majority of Second Life users actually would look at that possibility in a very favourable light — even if it meant that all advertising in Second Life would be taken over by Google Ads. But that, in itself, is generally not seen as being so bad.

This was the scenario when Google Plus launched: a community of roughly 20 million potential users who were quite eager to see Google “take over” the market dominance of web-based social networking currently held by Facebook. And why the eagerness? Very simple. Because, unlike Facebook, Google has always stuck to the old ideal that privacy is important, as opposed to Zuckerberg’s Privacy is Dead mantra. And in this era where people publish too much about their personal information and share way too much — mostly because of a certain innocence of not recognising the inherent danger — Zuckerberg’s statements are subversive and shatter the foundations of our democratic societies.

The right to privacy is not merely an utopic ideal. It’s embodied on the United Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 17), which are signed by pretty much every country of the world, even a few that aren’t democratic. The important thing to remember is that the right to control one’s own privacy is an unalienable right — not only in the US, but in most countries of the world. You might argue that people only volunteer the information they wish when using Google’s services. That’s true. But allegedly you’re now demanding that people only use the name “that one commonly goes by in daily life“. That is a little better than what Facebook demands — nothing less than a valid ID card to subscribe to their service — but it’s way too vague. Who defines the name “that one commonly goes by in daily life”? Under the many international treaties regulating privacy and human rights, there is only one person that has the right to define that: the person itself.

This seems to have been completely overlooked in some cases where Google Profiles have been deleted because Google has assumed the right to “decide” how people should be called. This is a very worrying breach of privacy: privacy can be defined in the following way:

“Privacy is an individual’s right to determine what information they would like others to know about themselves; which people are permitted to know that information; and the ability to determine when those people can access that information”.

(emphasis mine; the quote is from Elias Bizannes)

It’s not Google, nor even a government, who has the “right” to decide how private we should keep our data. It’s up to us. Technology is just a means to implement privacy policies, but, ultimately, it’s up to the service to provide the adequate tools to support privacy requirements. In some countries (certainly in my own!), legislation strictly controls what kind of information companies can or cannot publish of their users; as a rule of thumb, they cannot publish anything that the users don’t allow them to publish, and, conversely, they cannot force users to publish information about themselves that they don’t want to see in public. Other jurisdictions may have different rules.

In particular, if someone does not want their names to be public, but prefer to go under a pseudonym, nobody — not even the government — can “force” them to do it otherwise. If Samuel Clemens registered to Google Plus today, would Google censor his profile if he used his pseudonym Mark Twain? Let’s face it — how many people know that both are the same person? A quick search on Google shows 828.000 results for “Samuel Clemens” and over 35 million for “Mark Twain”. The name I have on my ID card gets a meagre 2000 results, most of which are not related to me at all; “Gwyneth Llewelyn” achieves around 33.000 results (a number which has remained pretty constant over the last 7 years). So what is “the name that I commonly go by in daily life”? Why should Google be the one defining it, when Google’s services barely recognise the name I have on my ID card?

You might argue that what matters is what advertisers will pay for the data mined about myself. Well, I shall refer to the opening words of this open letter: I want advertisers to look me up as Gwyneth Llewelyn, and, conversely, as an advertiser, I want to target other Second Life users who use their pseudonyms “commonly in daily life”. As I’m fond of mentioning, I have a credit card in the name of Gwyneth Llewelyn. I shop in eBay using PayPal under my pseudonym. I advertise with Google and have joined the Google Affiliate Network using that name; I sold an article to the British newspaper the Guardian under my pseudonym and get interviews in some media, including TV, under my pseudonym as well; and I have some academic research articles to be published under my pseudonym. Speaking of which, my pseudonym is not only registered with the local Writer’s Association, but it’s also a registered trademark in my country as well; like most artists, it has some recognised value, and so I’m careful to protect it as best as I can afford to. And of course I subscribe to pretty much everything online with my pseudonym — I don’t trust any of those sites with my real name, as a matter of principle. Still, that never stopped me to shop online with them, and it also never stopped the post office to deliver the mail in the name of Gwyneth Llewelyn: all these shops don’t care how I call myself, so long as my card has credit and I remain a faithful customer.

So when advertisers get your profiling data about my pseudonym, what do they get? They know about my tastes. They know what I shop for — either on eBay or on several other fashion sites where I shop. They know my location, my age and birthdate. They know what I write about and what my tastes are. They know about my circle of friends and what excites us. They know my political, social, philosophical, and economical views. In fact, Google knows even more than that: you know where I live, how much I spend and receive from ads, and I believe that you even know the name on my ID card. I’m fine with all that, because I trust your privacy policy. This information is, according to your policy, never revealed (except to governments and courts of law, of course) unless I tell you otherwise. This is how it should be.

It is thus unconceivable that you are now attempting to limit the way we use our Google Profiles and are not allowed to use “the name that we commonly go by in daily life”, but some other name, which Google employees deem to be the “right” one. The right one for whom? All the people advertising on my sites; all those merchants with whom I do my regular online shopping; my friends, contacts, acquaintances and business contacts just know me by my pseudonym. Sure, a few might have a vague idea that I also have an ID card showing a different name. But why should they care? All they want to know is what Gwyneth Llewelyn is buying or selling, what Gwyneth Llewelyn is writing about, who she works with, with whom she talks and interacts, what she likes, what she does… that’s the kind of data they are interested in, and that’s why they pay to advertise on my sites. If they can’t even find me on Google’s services, how shall they know that they’re actually doing business with Gwyneth Llewelyn and not someone else?

You see, your “logic” is twisted the wrong way round. The concept of “the name that we commonly go by in daily life”, in the sense of the kind of information that your advertisers and buyers of profiling data are eager to get, is the name that we effectively go by in daily life, not the one that Google employees think we go by. In case of any doubt, they should at least validate how “common” that name actually is, in the sense of what Google’s search engine knows about that name. It’s a metric like any other, but certainly a much better metric than “it’s what we think that your most common name is”.

Let me quote again from Hamlet Au’s article. This was a statement by Google’s Katie Watson:

Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world. By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know — friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances — in finding and creating a connection with the the right person online.

I don’t want to go deep into philosophy and discuss what is “real” and what is not; business and philosophy don’t mix well! So I’ll focus on the second sentence instead: by using any other name but the name my friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances know me, how are those people supposed to find and create connections with the right person — i.e., me? You might argue that I could provide both the name on my ID card as well as an extra “nickname” where I could write “the name I commonly go by in daily life”. Sure, but that would require me to expose an aspect of my identity that I’m not comfortable in sharing.

And why?

This is sadly something that requires a bad experience to truly appreciate. I confess that I always enjoyed the privacy of the Internet, but I really didn’t think it mattered that much. Until in 2004, using my real name on the many instant messengers I used at the time, a criminal group stalked me down in order to blackmail me; they knew, depending on the IP address I was connecting from, if I was at home or at work. These were not the super-overarching-conspiracy kind of guys, with professional crackers working for them. No, they were at the lowest level of computer literacy — they knew just enough to see when I was logged in and where I was logging from. They even tracked down my roomie, who at that time had a job as a babysitter, and threatened her as well. It was not a nice experience, but I sort of learned my lesson: privacy on the Internet matters, and it matters more than we think. “Identity theft” and “stalking” are things that we read about on the newspapers and think that they only apply to highly sophisticated criminal organisations, who only assault Fortune 500 CEOs and the like. In reality, it is done by petty criminals all the time — as well as by all sorts of people that we really, really don’t want to follow us. So, well, after that experience, I’m wary about the kind of information I wish to reveal about myself.

I truly wish that you never have such an experience, and extend that wish to everybody else in the world that uses Google’s services. The only advantage of going through it is to realise how important privacy suddenly becomes, when your life is being threatened directly by criminal elements. It suddenly stops being merely an abstract concept, something philosophical to discuss at parties with friends, or to write lectures about. Instead it becomes as important as breathing: lack of privacy means putting your life in danger and into the hands of someone else over which you have no control. This is only obvious if you have gone through that experience.

George Orwell in his book “1984” shows a glimpse of a society where the ultimate motto is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. The fallacy of that motto, which used to be associated with extreme right-wing ideologies, is shown in the resulting dystopia: because nobody truly knows what it means to have privacy, all live in the terror of being discovered of not doing the “right” things. Earlier generations — your own parents, Larry — who had the horrors of WWII very firmly ingrained in their minds, and read Orwell and similar authors warning about the terrors of lack of privacy, would shudder at the thought that, these days, lack of privacy is an industry standard: it’s corporations, for their own good, that define what people are forced to share, or, if they don’t, they’re ostracised. Ostracism, if you remember, is just the extreme level of discimination, where someone is shut out of society because they’re non-conforming to accepted social norms. Under a democracy, ostracism is violently fought; our societies are grounded firmly on the ethical values of inclusion and protection of minorities that can’t otherwise protect themselves. Of course all these are ideals; there are still minorities, they are still persecuted, they are still oppressed, and many are unfortunately still ostracised. But we’re talking about fundamental principles at stake here.

Orwell’s only flaw in his argument is that he saw government as the most dangerous element in a society regarding privacy laws, and his work just encoraged common citizens to be watchful over how their governments deal with privacy laws. By doing that, all of us forgot to take into account that corporations, not governments, are assuming a more important role in defining how our society works. When discussing the role of privacy in our societies, we have not only to take Orwell into account, but also bring in the cyberpunk authors of the 1980s (Gibson, Sterling, and others), who showed us a glimpse of megacorporations pretty much ruling the world with governments as mere puppets (when they existed at all). While liberals and neoliberals might prefer a model where megacorps dictate the ethical and moral values of a society, and not governments (or religion!), the fundamental aspect is that megacorps have, in turn, to define those models and stand by them in the context of democratic societies which abide by certain unalienable rights. For me, either model works fine, so long as those rights are protected and defended, and our societies remain democratic, no matter who actually has the “power” in their hands.

So we turn back to your and Sergey’s definition of Google as “a corporation that does no evil”. Obviously this will depend a lot on a shared definition of “evil”. My own definition is: anything that hurts or causes suffering to a sentient being. The important here to note is that it’s not the evil-doer that defines what hurts or causes suffering; it’s the subject of the action that knows what makes them hurt. Due to a common heritage based on certain shared values, it’s not uncommon to postulate that “evil” is something abstract that someone (or some deity) wrote down a few millenia ago, and that we can “interpret” as much as we want (e.g. relative morality). Under that definition, since there is nothing written down by philosophers or religious leaders that it’s “morally wrong” to force people to reveal public information about themselves, it’s fine to enforce it. Under my definition — shared by hundreds of millions, by the way — the notion of “evil” is not something you write down on a philosophical treaty. It’s the consequence of any action that causes pain or suffering. It’s irrelevant if one acts in the best of intentions; it’s irrelevant if the perpetuator of that action goes to Church every morning and pays their dues, or writes philosophical treaties on the nature of “evil” and talks about it in lectures. If someone hurts because of your actions, you’re an evil person — and that is tremendously easily to validate. It doesn’t require years of studying philosophy, religion, or law. It is immediately perceivable, even by an external observer. People hurting because of others simply means that those others are evil. Very simple, very straightforward.

It’s when we start bringing in justifications for perpetuating our evil acts that things start to slip away from our own control. For instance, you could argue that you wash your hands from your actions regarding privacy policies, because, well, Google is a company making over US$28 billion annually from ads, and your advertisers (at least many of them) demand that you collect people’s ID cards and validate their identity with you before placing ads on your vast network. So you might claim, “I’m not evil; my clients are; I’m just the medium, the carrier, not the ultimate enforcer, so I’m clean”. This is the beginning of the end. Once you start justifying your acts in that way, you will never stop with justifications, and each will grow more and more to propagate an endless stream of suffering. In a few months, your advertisers will start to demand that you give them access to ID card numbers, so that they can cross-reference them with their databases. Next they will demand a filter so that they can target their ads just to wealthy Caucasians. Finally they might demand that they only wish ads to be sent to specific groups of people that have been validated by a certain political party or religious group. This can go on and on, and at each step, new justifications will allow one to firmly believe that one’s not doing anything wrong, merely acting as a channel or medium, and replying in the correct way to please the majority.

There is also no “morality” involved in presenting a view where depriving people of their privacy makes them suffer. It was not God that told me that on a phone call; it was not a book I read that said so; it was not a preacher that claimed miraculous powers that informed me of the “right view”; and definitely it was not a politician, a philosopher, or a human-rights advocate that told me that and I’m just faithfully reproducing “an act of faith”. Not at all. I’m just stating facts that anyone can observe on their own and reach their own conclusions. Removing privacy makes people suffer. That’s a simple statement and it can be analysed and observed in action, not in philosophical debate. When I let too much about myself be publicly available on the Internet, I was stalked by criminals who knew exactly where I was to be able to blackmail me on the spot. This was not Fate (but also not an “extraordinary coincidence”) or an Act of God. It was merely a consequence of my actions: less privacy, more prone to suffering at the hands of others. But even if you never went through a similar experience, you can look at what happens to others and think: “If I were in the same situation, and suffer as a consequence of a lack of privacy, how would I feel?” This extraordinary ability that we have to imagine how others would feel is what makes us humans so different from common animals; it’s very special, and it’s thanks to this ability that we were able to create working societies which try, through their laws and rules, to create environments where (at least theoretically), people can suffer less at the hands of others.

Please don’t fall into the easy temptation of subverting that model. People do live under more benign governments and in more pleasing circumstances than in the past. We averted the “1984” dystopia by thinking very carefully what an utter lack of privacy meant, and managed to put some checks on governments to avoid that scenario. We were perhaps careless with corporations. However, some corporations, like Google, have embodied an ethical code of conduct in their mission statements. Now it’s the time to reflect what the consequences of that code of conduct actually are. One of my teachers says that the code of conduct — specially in the case of one that is adopted voluntarily, which is certainly the case of Google — is what we vow to keep in a moment of sanity, to protect us when we face those moments of irrationality which will push us to act against it. It’s on those moments that we remind of ourselves of the code of conduct we have adopted and, as a result, we put a stop to our evil actions and behave according to what we believe in.

Google, in a rare, lucid moment, formulated as the base of their business code of conduct the profound belief that one can make money without resorting to evil actions. I personally subscribe to that view as well. If anyone had any doubt that this code of conduct cannot bring results, they can look at your published financial tables and see how successful Google is. Google has paved the way for tech companies to understand that one can be immensely successful without hurting others in the process; and that this is not a “limitation” at all, but rather attracts similar-minded customers and partners who subscribe to the same business ethics and, together, create a wonderful ecosystem to work in. This has been one of the major reasons why I have always promoted Google products so proudly and widely; by contrast, it has always been the reason why I raised my eyebrows every time Zuckerberg defended his “Privacy is Dead” policy. But perhaps he is just bowing to his financial supporters — ultimately connected to members of the Russian Mafia — who have quite different codes of ethics than yours.

Please remain ethical and prove to the world that you can continue to run a very successful business that way and become an example to follow by all other megacorps in this world. In the specific example of demanding users of Google Plus to change their profiles against their will, just remember that there are, indeed, people who want to search those profiles for our commonly used name in a daily base, which just happens to be a quite different one than the one written on our ID cards. Remember that most of us had no choice in what names were given to us at birth; that decision is made by our parents. In some cases — and countries — changing our birth names is not an option. But on the Internet, we have no such restrictions — RFC 1855 is still in effect, and, in theory, if you’re connected to the Internet, you have to abide by all RFCs. But the most important aspect is that there is a market for Second Life users and others who commonly go by a pseudonym in their interactions. As said, the market for Second Life users is about 20 million potential viewers of ads — a number larger than most countries. All of them, without exception, go by their chosen names (even though not all are pseudonyms). Do your research — you have profiling data on most of them — and see how much that market actually represents. See how wealthy all those users are. See what tastes they have, what they buy, how they advertise, how much they click on ads, how they use Google AdSense on their own sites, how they manage a huge interconnected network of friends who recommend products and share links among themselves, leading to more clicks on ads and so forth. Then compare with a random sample of other users — who might put their scanned ID card on their profiles but contribute little to Google’s income. I’m sure that you will find the results intriguing. I’m prepared to bet that you will find that pseudonymous users interact as much as any others, and I might even casually admit that, in the case of Second Life users, they interact far much than any random sample, with more compelling content, and, more important, they also regular online shoppers, for goods both virtual and physical. Don’t take my word for it: look at all your profiling data and make good use of it, reaching your own well-researched conclusions.

I’m sure the results will be not only surprising, but actually rather positive. They should be more than enough to persuade you to revert your policies regarding the name we are “allowed” to present on Google Profiles, if the ethical argument that it goes against your own ethical code of conduct is not compelling enoug (which I don’t need to remind you that you adopted voluntarily; nobody forced you to adopt it).

In this era where citizens’ rights will more and more be defined with how corporations enact their terms of service, it’s important to look at the many initiatives to support individual rights on the electronic frontier and implement them on social networks. Google has lead the way in adopting some of those principles in their code of conduct. Now it’s the time to be consistent with those principles and show how much you actually believe in them and how they shape the way Google continues to do innovative business.

A googol is, by definition, far more than 1984. Similarly, Google should have an ethical stance far above other megacorps. Not because of any philosophy, ideology, or divine revelation, but because your own mission statement says so.

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