Some may have heard of the saying, “Trust is hard to earn, easy to lose, and nearly impossible to win back”. This particular statement is becoming even more of a reality in the recent era of technology as it was in the early eras of individualism. The respective generation is witnessing a more rapid and faster development of technology than ever before, hence making it more difficult to regulate and formulate the legislatures for the issue of informational privacy and personal data. Generally, the consumers, who are mainly the private users of the organizations, are the ones who trust the online corporations, which acquire their personal information being exchanged over the cloud and other online databases. Although Google has been operating the majority of business morally, the corporation still acquires personal data unethically in some respects in order to turn a profit on lucrative advertisement opportunities.
Google is a massive corporation that has built a reputation for its excellent search engine and multitude of other applications designed to be used online. Google has investments in many data-mining fields, which are utilized to help target audiences with user specific and site-specific ads. DoubleClick, AdMob, and ITA are all examples of recent acquisitions of Google. The primary method of income for each of these companies was obtaining user information and selling that information to advertisers such as Google. Google receives the information from each of the companies it has purchased, and now has an extremely large database of personal data. Even inn 2006, being reportated to have 220 terabits of user data which has definitely ballooned since then.
Privacy groups are labeling Google as an evil that will end private internet surfing once and for all. But what exactly is immoral about Google’s business practices? In order to further understand this, one must understand how the corporation uses personal data to generate revenue.The goal of a business is to turn a profit for its owners of course. Google is no exception, as it makes its money off of advertisements it displays in over half of the web pages that the majority of people visit. Google ads are harmless, text-based links that are much easier on the eyes compared to most pop-ups or flash ads. They even come without sound so it’s not as bothersome. Google’s ads are an archetypal example of the effort and usability that permeates everything that the search-engine creates.
They put a lot of effort into creating precise algorithms for their search-engines and their user interface for Google products. By providing excellent quality applications for their users, Google already demands some level of respect for the income they generate with their advertisements.In order to make money through advertisements, an internet-based company must produce ads that are clicked on by more users than other advertisements competing for more traffic.
Google accomplishes this through, “targeted advertisements” which are ads tailored to each individual person based on which sites they visit and what they mostly discover online. Getting information on users of Google’s ad services is the main point of controversy. Since the ads are public, the ads target all users at once. This leads Google to requiring information to be attained on every user. There are several ways Google goes about obtaining personal data.
For example, purchasing companies that already have this data is one way. Google has purchased the previously ITA for 700 million dollars, AdMob for 750 million dollars, and Doubleclick for 3.1 billion dollars (nytimes.com; techcrunch.com; insidegoogle.
com). The function of each of these companies is to track user data and use that data to target ads to the same visitors of search engines such as Google. With such a substantial amount of money spent on delivering better ads to customers, Google has clearly amassed a large amount of data to work with. However, throughout the immense data seeking, some privacy laws and moral standards are violated. For example, in 2002, Doubleclick paid 1.
8 million dollars in a settlement to multiple states over privacy issues (informationweek.com). Doubleclick was also ordered to reveal how they were exactly gathering the data they obtained from users of their services.
It was revealed they were using cookies to track users from website to website and using that data to gain ad revenue. As written in the New York Times, “Google is now the owner of Doubleclick, and with the transfer of power, all that data has been gifted to the new parent company (nytimes.com).” In comparison, Google is fairly open with how they obtain their data, with cookies and tracking of users’ IP addresses being an example. Although they have not been very good at alerting their users to the existence of these cookies or to the extent of their data-mining per individual. Some may question whether this is unethical or just solely a business venture? However, making broad generalizations such as, “Google is good” or “Google is evil” is not authentic. The real way to analyze a company for morality is to take a look at what actions they have taken.
Google is profiting through advertisements, the buying out of competing businesses, use of targeted advertisements, and the gathering and storing of personal data which are all considered relevant and known practices. Each of issues can be broken down to their core to reveal whether they are ethical processes. Social Contract Theory states that, “In order to live in a peaceful, safe, and stable society, individuals must relinquish certain personal freedoms. Google makes money off of advertisements it shows users when they browse through Google’s websites. These ads are usually text-based and are not intrusive as mentioned earlier.
Google uses these ads to keep its search-engine running with thousands of people using it at any given second. Google has also made it easy for other website developers to add their ads to their site. In return, Google gets paid by the businesses or people that advertise using Google’s ad service. The other way is for Google to work with webmasters and businesses that wish to show their product to a diverse group of internet browsing users. This is not manipulating user’s privacy laws as a means to an end, but rather working with them to achieve an end.
Under both models, Google is not creating revenue from advertisements immorally.Under this system Google, the webmasters, the businesses, and the web users are all happy. The users do not have to look at flashy pop-ups or unlosable ad windows, instead they are able to peruse one or two lines of text of something that truly interests them. No privacy rights are violated here for several reasons.
For example, the users accept ads as a logical and reasonable way to keep Google’s search-engine running, while the webmasters see the ads as a good source of revenue and a way to keep their own websites running, and thus, businesses are happy to have their products in the public’s eye. As mentioned previously, the model of Social Contract Theory sees this as moral.Now, when it comes down to Google acquiring the assets previously held by the other companies such as DoubleClick, it utilizes their data on people’s buying and surfing habits.
Google uses the data to target ads at internet users in the hopes of more frequent purchases of those products, thus increasing the money charged to the businesses using Google’s advertisement services. This brings us to the question on whether using people’s surfing habits in order to target advertisements is moral or not? Google uses their vast data pools to target ads to specific internet users as they browse in real time. One of the more stunning examples of targeted advertisements that new users to Google’s Gmail service occurs when they read their first email.
Google Ads are placed above and along the side of the message box on the same subject that is in the email. This also happens when a search term is placed in Google proper: a list of relevant ads appears to the side of the search terms. These are all meticulously calculated through algorithms derived from data that Google has and that targets every person using any Google product. Taking only the targeted advertisements into account, and ignoring for the moment how the data is procured, is Google doing evil? From this point on, it becomes harder to say with clarity whether or not an action taken by Google is moral.
If everyone were to advertise to internet users without bias for individuals, the internet would continue to have advertisements and continue as normal. However, Google is targeting ads towards customers. When this action is universalized, it may become, “In order to make money through advertisement revenue, businesses may recommend their products to a specific individual that they think is more likely to buy their wares than the general internet populace based on that individual’s data.” This is less conceivable because it treats every person as a separate entity instead of an internet user looking to buy a product. If everyone were to target their advertisements to users based on a specific individual’s data, there would be no need for advertisements. If targeted advertisements are not what privacy groups are concerned about, then it must be about how the data used in targeted ads is gathered.Data for targeted advertising is gathered in a myriad of ways, from moral to immoral. The less debatable ways to morally gather data involve a company asking for information from a user for reasons stated to the user being questioned.
These involve surveys, yes or no questions such as, “was this ad relevant to you?”, and optional fill-in data fields, such as Google’s profile page. Noticeably, these are all consensual methods, however cookies are the more controversial and stealthy method of obtaining personal user data. Cookies tend to go unnoticed by the vast majority of the internet user-base.
Is it moral to simply explain on a webpage how data is collected, or is it immoral without alerting the user to each time the data is being collected and how to opt-out of the service? Google’s policy of using cookies to gather user information can be described as, “In order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, Google may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites as long as Google provides a web page describing how the tracking works.” Many users do not know this policy exists, so the statement becomes, “In order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, Google may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites without that user’s knowledge.” If this statement is universalized, it becomes, “Every business, in order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites without their knowledge.” If every business did this, and assuming every user were aware of this, users that felt it necessary would take precautions to avoid the tracking methods of the business involved. This defeats the original intent of the tracking method, namely to gather data, and it would become similar to asking the permission of the user, in an extremely confusing manner. Hence, Google is using internet users as a means to more accurately target ads towards them by tracking their habits without their explicit consent. This formulation rules Google’s cookies as immoral ways to gather data because the ability to negotiate with the users is completely ruled out.Taking into account the unhappiness that users experience as a result of being constantly monitored, and the unhappiness generated when users are forced to find ways around Google’s cookies, the morality becomes debatable.
If everyone were allowed to monitor everyone else while on the internet, actions such as the purchase of goods and services through the internet would not take place. Paranoia and fear would keep people from sending sensitive data from being monitored. This all leads to a net decrease in happiness, and is an immoral action for Google to take.
Google is violating many privacy rights in this example. Cookies are extremely invasive, revealing a person’s habits and likes or dislikes. By using cookies to monitor every computer without protection, Google is stating that it is up to the uninformed users to safeguard against the actions preformed by the former party.
When Google is compared to other companies that utilize data-mining, even some of the ones they purchased that fell under controversy, the difference is evident. Even though some methods that the corporation utilizes to obtain user’s personal data may be deemed unethical, Google is one of the most successful and professional organizations utilizing data mining today.