Thoughts on “growing anti-Google sentiment and what is fueling it”

I recently received a request from a journalism graduate student to comment on a story about “growing anti-Google sentiment and what is fueling it” and about “how Google’s principles have changed, and how the public is reacting to this switch.” Here are my brief answers to the questions posed:

“Do you have a sense that the mainstream public (not just the internet savvy) have a real growing distrust of Google’s services?”

I haven’t seen any direct evidence on how recent events have affected the general public’s level of trust/distrust with Google, but there have been some recent studies regarding trust in search engines overall, which might provide insight to how people might react:

Fallows, D. (2005) “Search engine users: Internet searchers are confident, satisfied and trusting – but they are also unaware and naïve”. [PDF] Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Marable L. (2003). “False oracles: Consumer reaction to learning the truth about how search engines work: Results of an ethnographic study.” Consumer WebWatch.

The Pew study, for example, reveals that 68% of users view search engines as a fair and unbiased source of information, while only 19% explicitly stated that they don’t place that kind of trust in search engines. However, the study also revealed that the 68% of those who consider search engines fair and unbiased tend to be less knowledgeable, engaged, and experienced in the world of search than the 19% of those who are more skeptical. Once users were made more aware of search engine practices, their trust in search engines falls: one-third of the users indicated they would be “less likely” to use a search engine, for example, if they discovered that websites were paying for placement within the search results.

Trust in search engines is equally fragile when users consider the possibility that their search activities are being monitored and tracked by the search engine provider. According to the Pew study, over half of search engine users are not aware of the ability to track their search activity. When told about the ability for search engines to monitor activity, 44% of all users disapprove of the practice, and two-thirds of those would stop using a search engine if they learned that it was keeping track of their own searches. In total, 21% of all Internet users would stop using a particular search engine if they learned their searchers were being tracked.

To me, this drives home the importance of increasing “search engine literacy” among Internet users: educating and informing users about how search engines work, the business models that support them, the use and placement of paid results and advertising, the privacy implications, as well as the potential for censorship or other forms of bias in results.

In light of the China situation, do you think the shift in “principles” is merely a tipping point for a public that has been waiting for a clear-cut reason to be anti-Google?

I don’t think the general public has been looking for a reason to become “anti-Google.” From my perspective (and supported by Pew’s research), the typical web user (erroneously) feels Google is a neutral tool that inherently delivers the “best” and most useful search results. Few considered the fact that search engines could have biases or be political. I do think, however, that the China incident was an event that finally did bring these issues to light. The potential biases in how search engines operate has now come to the forefront of people’s minds. For those who already were concerned about the “politics of search engines,” the China incident was merely the latest manifestation. (see L. Introna and H. Nissenbaum. Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters [PDF]. The Information Society, 16(3):1-17, 2000.)

Is fear of Google, as some have said, just another example of paranoia about technology in general?

I don’t think this should be simply chalked up as paranoia about technology or a Luddite reaction. Search engines do provide a useful service to help navigate the Web. The key is to acknowledge that no technology is neutral – and that search engines do contain politics (again, this was first pointed out by Introna & Nissenbaum). It is not a matter of paranoia, but of coming to an understanding the political aspects of technology so that users can better understand these tools and the implications of their use. I would not suggest not using Google because of these issues; only that the use of Google must be informed by these concerns so users understand the broader issues at play and adjust their use and expectations of search engines accordingly.

Is the negativity a result of jealousy and an automatically dislike of companies that just get too big? Or is it related to a larger feeling of anxiety about privacy issues (perhaps fueled by other government vs. privacy scandals that have
come to light recently)?

I don’t think these reactions have anything to do with Google’s size, or even their potential monopoly role. Google has brought some of this attention upon themselves by taking the bold moral stance with their “do no evil” corporate motto, but to be fair, Google certainly is not alone with regard to both privacy concerns or China. Yahoo, for example, appears to have provided information to the Chinese government which led to the imprisonment of 2 Chinese citizens critical of the government. Microsoft reportedly also has helped the Chinese government track down dissidents.

The rising public concern over the privacy of our personal information and online intellectual activities has also helped make issues of search engine privacy more apparent to the average user, but again, I feel much more needs to be done to not only educate users, but also to better conceptualize (philosophically, legally, socially) the particular privacy and surveillance threats search engines represent.

I also noticed that you moved off of Blogger recently–any indication of your own personal attitude toward Google?

An astute observation! Yes, when I first experimented with blogging in January of 2005, I used Google’s Blogger platform: it was free and easy-to-use. But as my research into the ethical and value implications of what I have called “the google paradigm” progressed, I decided it would be best to move my blog off Google’s servers and to my own site. I do use Google for searching the web, and I have experimented with Gmail and their other services to become acquainted with how it works, but I do not log into their site, and I clear Google’s cookie from my browser regularly.


  1. David – thanks for catching the bad (old) link. I’ve corrected it in the post. I think I’ve corresponded with others at LSE (Elizabeth?), and I look forward to following your coverage of these issues at your blog.

    Also, please consider submitting to a book on web search engines that I am co-editing.

  2. Pingback: Privacy Digest: Privacy News (Civil Rights, Encryption, Free Speech, Cryptography)

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