Dear Mr Schmidt,
You are the CEO of one of the most innovative, successful and remarkable companies in the world. I deeply admire what Google has achieved in the past years. You’ve created the best search experience in the world, and continue to improve it. It helps us forget about URLs, a tech problem, and instead focuses on the thing we are looking for. You’ve created maps that allow us to visit the world, the stars and the deep-sea without having to leave our chair. You’ve mashed these maps up with incredible useful data, allowing me to find directions, locate stores, see what a street looks like. You’ve invested in one of the largest video portals in the world, even when there wasn’t a clear business model (but lots of user value). You’ve managed to give Apple the dead-needed competition for their iPhone lock in arrogance. With the development and ecology of Android, you have given handset manufactures a compelling reason to stop delivering useless mobile interfaces and instead focus on what they are good at, building hardware. You have helped organizations like Mozilla that want to make the web a place where the user is in control. You’ve just released Wave, a brave attempt to redefine the way we collaborate and communicate, and I’m sure that this investment will benefit us all.
You are the only company in the world that has made advertisement an added value instead of a stand-in-the-way. Where most services lock me in so that they can throw their unwanted advertisement to me, you have set me free and present me advertisement when I’m actually searching for it. You have helped small and large businesses to connect their business to my needs in a (cost) effective way. You are continuously helping other businesses to run their business with applications, services and open API’s.
When reading back this list of achievements (which is hardly complete!) I think you can be proud of the achievements of your company. I think we all have benefited from the great services Google provides us all. But these achievements are realized at a cost. And that cost is that we (the Internet users) need to give up (some) privacy, in order for all of this to work. I think that most people will not mind this. It’s a simple trade really. We expose ourselves a bit, and in return you provide us with excellent value.
Although the exchange is simple, its execution is flawed. The exchange has been made implicit. In other words, users are hooked into great services, but are not aware that they are actually trading (part of) their privacy for it. While this may not be a large problem for most, it may be a huge problem for some. I believe that it is this implicit exchange that disturbs the balance between the service provider and its users. This imbalance is unhealthy. It leaves Google with almighty power and the user with little. It is impossible for a user not to be part of this exchange, unless he doesn’t connect to the Internet. It is impossible for the user to negotiate different exchange rules with Google. And while your motto may be “Do no evil” this imbalance is a fertile ground for evil things. Power corrupts, and the balance of power is currently favoring Google.
Even more worrying is your simplistic view on this. I refer to a short video fragment in which you state literally “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that in the first place”. Maybe I shouldn’t judge these words too harsh, based on a 1 minute video clip, but that is probably one of the dumbest quotes I’ve heard from you, ever. There are tons of valid examples thinkable where a person wants to do something and not tell anyone about it. Let’s not enter that discussion now. The problem lies in the fact that Google is not explicitly asking the user if his actions (data) can be indexed or not.
If you really believe in your own motto ‘Do no evil’ then I would kindly request you to rethink the relationship between Google and its users. While you have already done incredible things for us, why not take it one step further. Why not restore the balance and help users define and control their privacy online. I’m betting that 75% of the Internet population will not mind exposing themselves to your company if in return you will provide them incredible value. By making that trade explicit you will not only restore balance, but most likely receive much better personal data from the user as he or she will be willing to share that. You might lose some data from that 30% that explicitly denies or restricts this exchange, but that will benefit both you and that user. His privacy is still intact, following user specified rules. And you will have much improved data from the other 70%, and at the same time have 100% user satisfaction.
Privacy isn’t just about hiding personal information. Privacy is about choice. It’s about freedom. It is about the user that can draw his personal line somewhere in this exchange. It’s about restoring the balance between the user and the service provider. Many hot shot Internet guru’s have told us that privacy is dead. What they are saying is that personal choice and freedom are dead? Do you really believe that? That would be evil.
You and your team can make a difference. You could easily help to build the infrastructure that is needed for users on the Internet to be able to set and control their privacy across any service or network. You have the means and the power to set up this user infrastructure. Its sole purpose would be to serve the user. It would make the world a better place. It would also make Google indispensable as a valuable partner for the user. And it would end up making you more money than you already do.
How about it Mr Schmidt? Would you be willing to take that step? If you need help with that challenge, then give me a call, because I would like to help too. I hope to hear from you.
Alexander van Elsas