Is Google Finally Evil?

Computerworld ran a juicy opinion piece last Friday, detailing why senior writer Kirk McElhearn is walking away from everything Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) .

"Google knows more about you than the NSA, and has recently shown that it doesn't give a hoot about your privacy," said McElhearn. " The trend that Google has been following has been looking darker and darker as the company nibbles away at the limits of privacy. This is no longer a company I trust."

McElhearn then promised to delete his Gmail account, eviscerate the personal information in his Google profile, and generally stay as far away from Mountain View as possible. Google still has the best search engine, in McElhearn's opinion, but he'll switch search services in a heartbeat if Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) or Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) ever devise anything comparable to Google's search results, or if Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) comes to the U.S.

What's wrong with Google?
That's an ominous verdict indeed, since McElhearn is a well-respected voice in the tech community. His particular field of expertise leans toward the doings of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and the Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Kindle, which makes him an authority on privacy issues.

Kirk doesn't like the fumbled privacy involved in the introduction of Google Buzz. Millions of Gmail users presumably had their contact information exposed to the world, with no chance of saying "No, thank you." Google CEO Eric Schmidt never quite apologized for this error of judgment, instead suggesting that the general public doesn't understand that no harm was done.

The final straw that broke McElhearn's back was the so-called "musicblogocide" of 2010, where Google shut down six popular music-related blogs with nary a warning, deleting years of articles. Each of the bloggers involved contend that they never posted any music files without the owner's explicit permission, but Google pulled the plug anyhow.

Thus, McElhearn has declared Google officially evil. Nobody knows how many consumers have followed his example, but Feb. 19, 2010 is clearly a dark day on Google's calendar. Is it as bad as the Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) recall-a-thon or the Tiger Woods backlash?

Bad boy, Google! But you can still get much worse...
The music blog overkill troubles me more than the Buzz flub, mostly because my contact information is already a matter of public record at the bottom of every article I write. Yeah, that's a Gmail account in the end. I did not see an uptick in spam when my account automatically joined Google Buzz, and if I wanted angry emails, I could easily attract them in other ways.

I find that Google's spam filters work amazingly well, even if they're not quite perfect. So what if there's another social application trying to steal my attention alongside Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a gazillion others? Big deal. I can leave Buzz if I want to. But maybe that's just me.

The music-blog Armageddon is another matter entirely. I can understand Google shutting down accounts that actually violate Blogger's posting policies and/or copyright law, but only if the company is willing to do some legwork first. By all accounts, Google received a few possibly baseless DMCA complaints, but went straight to the nuclear option without doing much to verify the validity of those notices.

What can Google do to lose my business?
What's next? Deleting my Gmail account would pretty much erase my online communications history of the last six years. If Google did so because of some wild DMCA notice from one of my many angry online friends, I'd call that "evil." That hasn't happened yet, and I hope that it never will, but the company does seem to be on that sort of trajectory now.

I remain a firm believer in Google's "don't be evil" mantra, and I'm still willing to give Big G the benefit of the doubt. Mistakes are bound to happen when you have such an enormous footprint in any market. That's all I think is going on here.

But honest mistakes should be followed by honest apologies, and I've seen none regarding either the musicblogocide nor the Buzz buzzkill. If Google's next public-relations misstep -- and I'm sure there will be many -- is met with stony silence or feeble excuses, I might take a good, hard look at my Google holdings. Google without public goodwill is worth just about nothing at all.

For now, I'm just backing up my Gmail account via IMAP. Y'know, just in case.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google and Baidu are Motley Fool Rule Breakers picks. Apple and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2010, at 3:47 PM, Emperor2 wrote:

    Anders, once you have backed-up all your G-mail information, (and as a test to Googles policy), what do you think about encouraging your readers to contact Google and complain about you. This would give you a real world test if they are really as evil as it appears they are.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2010, at 4:22 PM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    I think it runs against our genetic programming to explicitly ask for complaints, really. Darwin would to a triple axel in his grave. Interesting idea, though.

    Anders

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