Open Letter to Google’s Larry Page

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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