Google: the proprietor of your programs and your data, at what cost to your privacy and civil liberties?

Occasionally I come across articles about Google that say they can’t understand Google’s business plan. Google’s business plan seems obvious to me and has for some time now—collect and index data about a large number of people and then deliver interesting summaries of that information to their paying clients. They’ll acquire the information by providing seemingly attractive gratis services to the world.

At first blush, using services people seem to want (spreadsheet, search engine, database, word processor, etc.) in order to collect information about you that they can either leak (release on accident) or sell (release on purpose) seems like a good bargain so long as the services are available gratis. Sadly, most people don’t look beyond the glitzy services Google offers, so they won’t encourage others to think beyond what they’re getting from Google.

I want to encourage you to think more deeply about this because online services are coming back into vogue.

There are plenty of good reasons to object:

  • It’s a matter of privacy—Divulging information about yourself in exchange for the convenience of remote hosting and automated backups is not an exchange that preserves your privacy. In the future, Google will provide spacious virtual drives one can access remotely over a Google-provided wireless network. One might have enough space to install an entire OS on their Google account and boot from it.
  • Google’s services are unimaginative and unnecessary—you can get the majority of what Google offers by running software locally. Their web search engine is the only service you can’t easily replicate locally…yet.
  • Nobody’s online service is leakproof—what happens when Google releases data it shouldn’t have? Who is adversely affected by divulging secret information to a business?
  • No software freedom—Google’s services are proprietary. You get no opportunity to run that software locally, inspect, share, or modify copies of these programs. You might want to do this so that you can be sure that your documents don’t travel outside your network, or so that you can improve upon how Google’s services work if only for your own benefit. You could also run variants of the Google services that allow you to explicitly state when data is shared with other people and what data is shared with them. As it is, you never really know with whom Google shares your data. How do you know that a disgruntled Google employee isn’t copying information by or about you? Running free software on a free software OS greatly reduces the risk this happens because you can either inspect the software yourself or get someone to inspect it for you, and you don’t need a network connection to run many of the programs Google offers.

Even if you value convenience above all, online services have a fatal flaw: they don’t work as well offline.