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Google: friendly giant, benevolent despot?

Making a pact with a well-designed, helpful devil

When Google first found its way into the public consciousness it was as a quirky but effective service: a simple search tool that cocked a snook at the monolithic giants of the PC industry. Its 'Don't be evil' slogan and unusual working practices made Google seem like a creative breath of fresh air, churning out innovative free products and enjoying positive PR that the likes of Microsoft and IBM would kill for.

It couldn't last. Following the usual path that turns an innovative newcomer into an overnight success and on to a multinational, living in the Google era has been an exciting ride. But a multinational Google now is.

With roughly 15 percent of the global advertising market, and the fastest-growing chunk of the mobile world, Google has arrived. Big time. Somewhere along the way it lost its gold-plated reputation as the friend of the little man – Google owns more data on us than anyone, and plenty of us feel uncomfortable about that.

Good burghers from Birmingham to Bremen often express outrage at Google's Street View antics, and the appearance of targeted ads in Gmail has forced us to reappraise the value of free storage. Now that Google has started second-guessing my search queries, and even knows which emails I prioritise, Google's loving embrace feels more like a suffocating grip.

Google's products are sufficiently good that I suck up my doubts and hand over my data. It's a pact with a well-designed devil, and the odds still feel stacked in my favour. But Google has long since ceased to be the cool kid on the block. It's useful and respected, and slightly feared. It has power, to use for good or ill.

Can we trust it? If we disregard Google's craven response to government pressure in lucrative China, there are reasons to feel that the big G may still want to be friends.

Recently, Google released an interactive map that displays all the data requests made by individual governments around the world. It's not complete (where's China?) and it leaves as many questions unanswered as it answers, but it makes for a fascinating read (see page 12).

I like the idea of Google exposing the activities governments don't want you to see. There's nothing commercial in this; the only benefit to Google is a modicum of good PR.

A good sign, then, but it shows just how powerful Google has become. In the information age data is king, and Google has enough of the stuff to make governments crawl. We didn't elect Google, but we chose to use it. Now we must reap the consequences.

The amount of data Google has on me, and the trust I'm required to place in it, makes me shiver. We've created a world in which Google is above the law, and no one knows where it will lead.

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