Google – Behind the Screen

I just finished watching a new Dutch (for Australian TV) documentary called “Google – Behind the Screen“. It provides a brief glimpse into the culture and technology behind Google, with interviews of Marissa Mayer, Vint Cerf and Google Earth and Google Books product managers. It also features commentary on privacy-related issues with Ian Brown of the Open Rights Group. Part of this discussion, with Mayer’s responses, can be viewed in this clip at YouTube.

Mayer’s reaction at the end is less than flattering – simply rejecting the premise of the question (with a slight shrug & a giggle) is not the way to build trust in Google’s handling of the personal information at their disposal.

Other topics include bias and subjectivity in search results, the dangers of over-reliance on a single source for information, the challenges of the Book Search project, censorship in China, and even security concerns with the level of detail provided by Google Earth.

In the face of such issues, a fair question for the engineers and designers of such technologies is how should they address and account for such social, political, and ethical concerns when creating such powerful and ubiquitous systems. Both the Google Earth manager and Mayer appear to hold the position that “we’re just engineers.” Paraphrasing Mayer’s comments:

M: “I really view us as computer scientists, so we can analyze a problem, and we can solve a problem. But, we’re not government officials, we’re not policy makers on a global scale. We’re simply responding to the needs of our users.”

Q: “With due respect, that sounds almost naive, considering the scale on which Google works.”

M: With a slight shrug, and said with a grin “I’m sorry but that’s my perspective.”

What Mayer ignores is the need for computer scientists and engineers to place values at the forefront of their design decisions. They must understand that information and communication technologies are a crucial medium for asserting social, political, and moral values such as freedom, autonomy, justice, privacy, and democracy. If the response by Google is to simply build the systems, and leave it up to government officials and policy makers to sort out the rest after the fact, then we’re all in trouble.

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