When Privacy is Bad: In Defense of Google

As much as I love to see people questioning Google’s stewardship of “all the world’s information”, I have to defend Google on this one.  An anonymous poster claiming to be from MSFT is over on a Google blog –using the AOL data leak as a way to smear Google.  That’s just plain wrong; and in the context of the original post, bordering on unethical.

There is an e-mail hoax making the rounds in India right now, purporting to explain how Google’s social networking service, Orkut, was created.  I’ve seen a few different versions going around, but they all have the same core story:

“A young software engineer travelling with his ‘girlfriend’ was in a train accident.  He survived, but could not find his girlfriend after the crash.  So, he wrote code day and night and hired a bunch of other coders to write Orkut.  In Orkut, people would type in the names of their friends, and their friends could type in the names of their friends, and so on.  After three years, he had millions of records and eventually one of her new friends entered her name in the database without her knowledge — our heartbroken lover was able to find his lost lover at last!”

Of course, the story is a complete fabrication; but were it true it would be rather creepy.

To some people this may seem “sweet”.  But you have to wonder why it wasn’t enough for this fellow to just put up a web page and let her Google for it herself.  Clearly, if he was so intent to “find out where she lives now and pay her a visit”, he was convinced that she was not going to contact him on her own.  Otherwise, the effort to build Orkut would have been senseless.  Stalkers always rationalize that their prey “want” it, so he surely had some reason why the poor girl was not going to contact him.  For example, “She is rather weak-minded, so she has probably had her heart stolen away by some evil man who has brainwashed her.  If only I go visit her at her new home, I can make her remember that she loves me instead.”  One reason that he might be so certain of this may be that she had done it in the past, before the train crash.  The poor fellow; always having to rescue his girl from manipulative men who make her unfaithful!

At first, I thought, “what a terribly unethical way to attract cyberstalkers to your social networking service!”  It’s not as if these people need any encouragement.  But then I remembered the “Committee of Gossips“.  The Internet makes it harder for people to hide from obsessive stalkers, but it also makes it harder for obsessive stalkers to operate in secret.

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So a few days ago, Niniane Wang at Google discovered evidence of rape by looking through the AOL search logs.  Almost instantly, she was mobbed with (mostly anonymous and male) commenters screaming foul — “How DARE you pry into someone’s PRIVATE life; I will never trust Google again!”

These people operate on denial and self-delusion; secrecy and privacy are the oxygen that keeps their abusive behaviors alive.  The typical date-rapist or stalker will tell you that it’s just a difference of opinion, a private matter, and that it’s none of your business.  He knows that he loses if you have all of the facts and can judge for yourself.

In this case, Niniane was looking at PUBLIC logs, and the evidence is clear enough that a crime has been committed.  Not only did Niniane do nothing wrong by calling attention to this; I argue that law enforcement would be negligent to not follow up on this (if possible).  It is sad (yet common) that the victims in the examples she cites could reach out for help only by leaving private e-mails in a public place, or typing a query into a search engine with the hope that they might find some answers somewhere.

The truth is, there are probably thousands of queries like this every day, from people suffering depression, abuse, or other problems; and looking for help.  Search engines should provide a direct and smooth transition to priivate and confidential 1:1 counseling for people in these situations.  When someone asks the search engine “is it normal to cook for someone after they rape you?” (it’s not uncommon, BTW), this person clearly wants to connect with someone who understands.  When someone asks “why is it so hard to find a reason to live?”, they are reaching out.  You’re not invading their privacy by directing them to resources that can help them.

Of course, people will be discouraged from seeking help for depression, abuse, and these sorts of things if they feel like their private lives might appear on someone’s blog the next day.  But that’s not the gist of the comments objecting to Niniane’s post.  And one way to give hope to future victims is by showing them tht they’re not alone; that there are many people asking the exact same questions — people who never would have scanned the AOL logs themselves now know that they aren’t the only ones to be having the same questions; and that is nothing but good.

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And if transparency is (understandably) a deterrent for victims to seek help, it’s doubly a deterrent for the abusers.  And in the case of abusers, shining the light can only do good.  The restaurant or venue owner who gets negative reviews on dianping will claim that “it’s just a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding”, and that may be the case (yes, sometimes the perp is the victim).  But you get to look at the evidence and decide for yourself.  The same should be true of heartbroken trainwreck survivors and date-rapists.  It’s only a matter of time until we have a “dianping for people”, and the committee of gossips have eyes everywhere.  This is what scares the anonymous protesters the most.

One Comment

  • If you were to google for me, I doubt that you would find anything. My names are pretty common, and I don’t show up at all among the first results. I’m probably not in Okurt either.

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