Prolog

How much does Google know about you? It’s a question I asked myself as part of our research for this month’s investigation, and the answer wasn’t very comforting. Many months ago, I sacrificed a bit more privacy for the luxury of instant searches via Google Desktop, meaning its bots have parsed down every single bit of data on my hard disk.

Prolog

What’s more, I use the company’s services every day: my homepage is www.google.com/ig – that is, a personalised site that shows me, among other things, if there are any new messages in my Gmail account. Every time I enter a search term, or check for a low price on Froogle, its knowledge of my personal habits and preferences is honed another notch. If it decided to, Google could discover more about me than even I care to know.

Yet just like millions of others, I waive my privacy for one simple reason: I trust Google. After all, it quotes ‘Don’t be evil’ as its guiding principle. One of its founders is called Larry, and you really can’t distrust anyone called Larry. It’s even got a sense of humour – you only need to see the holiday-special Google logos to realise that.

For now, it doesn’t need to veer from the virtuous path it’s chosen: the company is meeting earnings targets and satisfying shareholders. But the Internet is a volatile place, and fortunes can change. Google will still have to deliver a return to shareholders if times become hard, and the pressure could severely test Larry and Sergey’s nerve, especially as the stock is currently valued so highly: its price-to-earnings ratio is above 90, and stocks above 15 are seen as expensive. I’m sure the founders of WorldCom started out with the best of intentions too.

Then there’s the risk from within. Google’s algorithms are smart enough to realise that when I talk about the cost of Apples in an email I’m referring to computers rather than tasty fruit. And by now it knows not only my email address but all those of my friends and colleagues (notably, without their consent). That sort of information is gold dust, and it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are in place: having all of this personalised information in one company could be a time bomb waiting to explode.

Despite this, I haven’t stopped using Google. If anything, our feature has made me realise just how innovative the company is, and how good at producing or buying services that capture the zeitgeist. But most fundamentally, it’s still a brilliant search engine: from five years of experience, I know that if I phrase my query correctly I’ll get to the sites I need. I could go to one of the other search portals, but if Google continues to produce the goods, why bother?

And the truth is, I don’t. This month, I tried to break the habit of a demi-decade and use a different search engine. I opted for MSN Search, with its ties to Encarta, but didn’t like it; all the buttons were in just slightly the wrong place. It reminded me of visiting a favourite superstore just after it’s switched all the aisles around. Except that I could go back to Google.

So Google has a big responsibility. In an uncertain electronic world, it’s both our guide and our friend. But against the background of its responsibility to its shareholders, and with the ominous presence of the stock market behind it, how long will we be able to trust its advice?

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