Blackspot

The Great Escape

An audacious plan to jam Google.

There was a time not so long ago when I, along with nearly everyone I knew, was enamored with Google. Google inaugurated a new internet-era in which the sum of human knowledge would be easy to find and available to all. We turned our backs on the infancy of the web – the Yahoo! and AltaVista dark ages – and looked toward a future where knowledge would be liberated and culture would be opened up to the free play of innovation.

Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin captured the alternative spirit we once adored in Google in an academic paper entitled “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” (1998). In this document, the first public description of the philosophy and technology behind Google, the cofounders disparage the commercialization of search engines. “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” Citing the example of OpenText, a search engine that corrupted its results with paid placements, they conclude that “the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.” For a time, this noncommercial approach was reflected in Google’s simple, ad-free website.

But then, something changed: Google forsook its founding vision. Perhaps Page and Brin’s guiding spirit was diluted by too much growth, or maybe the draw to be profitable made idealism seem irrelevant. In any case, Google opened the door to commercialization and advertising crept in. By 2000, text ads lined the side of the screen. Today a typical search in Google may yield ten results surrounded by 11 advertisements. If only it had stopped there. Now it is less about the ads Google puts on its own pages and more about the ads Google puts on everyone else's pages.

By making it easy for mom-and-pop businesses to add advertising to their websites, Google has become the internet's largest and most determined info-polluter – effectively killing the dream of a commercial-free internet. Since its recent purchase of DoubleClick for $3.1 billion, Google controls the ad-space on over 85% of all websites. Whether you are surfing the New York Times, MySpace or an infrequently trafficked blog, chances are that Google provides the advertisements that distract you. The fact is that Google is no longer primarily a search engine. As Google's CEO Eric Schmidt recently explained in an interview with Charlie Rose, “now we are an advertising company!” Today 99% of Google's revenue comes from the ads it strews on websites across the internet.

Watching Schmitt rejoice at Google’s new business model should cause us to pause and consider the long-term cultural consequences of relying on an advertising company to organize the world’s information. For the first time in human history, a single company both controls our access to information and corrupts that same information through advertising. Google makes money not from censorship – although it recently proved its willingness to engage in this behavior too – but from altering our worldview through the commercialization, commodification and adulteration of our culture's collective knowledge. Google is, in other words, the most radical reordering of information to benefit advertisers the world has ever known. If Google continues to play the role of librarian to the internet, the greatest warehouse of human knowledge ever built, we face tremendous danger.

The consequences of Google's commercialization of knowledge are apparent in our inability to confront the existential challenges we’re facing. While the physical world is dying, we remain transfixed by the shimmering digital world. We’re unable to critically sift through information, digest it into knowledge and combine it with personal experience to produce wisdom and action. Instead, we drift in a sea of disconnected facts, getting a buzz from being connected. But this passivity is not entirely our fault – it is induced by the experience of searching for knowledge online when everything has become a trivial, mindless commodity. Who can take the looming ecological catastrophe seriously when online content is squeezed between ads that either distract us or stimulate us to consume?

Google is to blame for encouraging the internet to become a space for consumption – let’s stop it from profiting. Sever the connection between advertising, clicks and sales. Instead of ignoring ads that annoy you, click on them. Let it be known that you are a protest-clicker, a culture jammer who is sick of what the internet has become and who is doing something about it. Clicking on advertising undermines Google’s ability to determine which clicks are real and which are fake. Advertisers will refuse to pay for protest clicks, as they already do with fraudulent clicks, and the myth of the online advertising system – that clicks translate into profit – will be thrown into disarray. With this myth under assault there will be little justification for increased online marketing.

While we undermine the commercial foundations of online advertising, we must also discover a radically anticommercial way of organizing information. Humanity needs a new knowledge paradigm – one that values the unity of information and finds pages based but on the broader ideas behind digital words, not on what is literally written. Unlike previous attempts at organization that have relied exclusively on computer scientists and automated spiders to index the internet, any new attempt requires something more. We need a system informed by an interdisciplinary approach, a system that critiques the assumptions inherent to the search engines developed thus far.

To give impetus to this project, I suggest that we gradually begin making portions of our websites unavailable to Google. Google has enjoyed unparalleled, free access to the information we put online, which has in turn encouraged users to rely exclusively on this corporate search engine. Not anymore. By blocking Google's access to the most important bits of our online data we will encourage the development of alternative forms of knowledge organization. This movement of sites “not in Google” will fundamentally undermine the assumption of its omniscience. To build a new system for the organization of knowledge is by far the most audacious plan ever proposed for cultural activists, but it may be our movement’s greatest gift to the future.

It is time we prove to the world that the knowledge we seek is not in Google.

Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org

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106 comments on the article “The Great Escape”

Displaying 41 - 50 of 106

Page 5 of 11

The-Dixie-Flatline

The article, whether making Google out to be bad or not, certainly seems to single them out, when stories like this...
http://techcrunch.com/2006/08/06/aol-proudly-releases-massive-amounts-of-user-search-data/
... point to other companies having been much more irresponsible with data that should have remained confidential. I'm not actually defending Google, except in pointing out that they are not the only, nor even the worst 'culprit' for want of a better word. Nor am I criticising anyone who wants to do something about the problem of the amount of private data held by these companies. I think targetted advertising, although not intrinsically a bad thing, is leading to data-collection, and worse, data-hording practices that are very open to abuse, however innocently collected. I just believe that A: trying to turn the clock back to a totally ad-free web is king Canute country and B: the scheme outlined in the post above is silly, childish, and ill-thought-out. Positive methods such as explaining the problem and choices to people gives them the chance to make their own minds up.
As for myself, I have the cookies of most of the major ad providers blocked, I clean my history, temp files and cookies several times a day and I use firefox with the Addblock Plus add-on. I believe that's a pretty fair level of privacy, whilst realising that I am taking part in a trade off between ad-revenue and free content. That's my choice, which the person who made the original post would deny me if they could, by closing down the company that provides much of that advertising, in my name but without my consent - so who's not using their citizenship in a responsible way, me or them?
I stress again, my major points:
If you're not just talking about one company, but about a privacy issue, then say so in the article, by not just mentioning one company for instance.
Be constructive (and democratic to boot), not destructive. Inform people of the problem and of what alternatives they have. Tell them of the dangers of putting their life online with shared apps and ill-considered posts on social networks (a far more immediate privacy problem).
As it stands the article is not informative, just silly.

The-Dixie-Flatline

The article, whether making Google out to be bad or not, certainly seems to single them out, when stories like this...
http://techcrunch.com/2006/08/06/aol-proudly-releases-massive-amounts-of-user-search-data/
... point to other companies having been much more irresponsible with data that should have remained confidential. I'm not actually defending Google, except in pointing out that they are not the only, nor even the worst 'culprit' for want of a better word. Nor am I criticising anyone who wants to do something about the problem of the amount of private data held by these companies. I think targetted advertising, although not intrinsically a bad thing, is leading to data-collection, and worse, data-hording practices that are very open to abuse, however innocently collected. I just believe that A: trying to turn the clock back to a totally ad-free web is king Canute country and B: the scheme outlined in the post above is silly, childish, and ill-thought-out. Positive methods such as explaining the problem and choices to people gives them the chance to make their own minds up.
As for myself, I have the cookies of most of the major ad providers blocked, I clean my history, temp files and cookies several times a day and I use firefox with the Addblock Plus add-on. I believe that's a pretty fair level of privacy, whilst realising that I am taking part in a trade off between ad-revenue and free content. That's my choice, which the person who made the original post would deny me if they could, by closing down the company that provides much of that advertising, in my name but without my consent - so who's not using their citizenship in a responsible way, me or them?
I stress again, my major points:
If you're not just talking about one company, but about a privacy issue, then say so in the article, by not just mentioning one company for instance.
Be constructive (and democratic to boot), not destructive. Inform people of the problem and of what alternatives they have. Tell them of the dangers of putting their life online with shared apps and ill-considered posts on social networks (a far more immediate privacy problem).
As it stands the article is not informative, just silly.

KenVallario

while i disagree that the article is silly, and i find it very informative...your argument is much more cogent, concerning the ability of a user to take such privacy into one's hands, which again brings us back to the notion of protection versus freedom. there really is no resolution, it is an innate human tension. i happen to think that having protective feelings toward those who might not be as technically savvy as you are is a healthy social emotion, but we have already covered this ground.
it is almost a pc/mac type of argument. you are very happy cleaning up your temp files and cookies, having ad-blockers, and on and on...running a clean ship, so to speak. i'm more of a mac user, happy to have all the magic happening behind the scenes, unaware of the mechanics, protected behind intelligent design. whereas mac focuses on the human experience, pc's are more anarchistic, depending on individual responsibility.
how does this apply to the article?
the online world is a virtual representative of the real world, but without a governing set of principles. it is anarchy, and such a state is rather conducive to creative energies as long as governing forces do not emerge. when they do, in the form of dominant presence, we are called to ask if such a presence is 'good' or 'bad' for the future of the experience. your dismissal of the article is a dismissal of an issue of scale, and here i think you are missing the point. most likely, google has operated with its power relatively fairly. that is not the point of the article, the point is how google is becoming a structural giant in a world that governs information, the lifeblood of society. do we agree that monopoly is unhealthy in a competitive market?

KenVallario

while i disagree that the article is silly, and i find it very informative...your argument is much more cogent, concerning the ability of a user to take such privacy into one's hands, which again brings us back to the notion of protection versus freedom. there really is no resolution, it is an innate human tension. i happen to think that having protective feelings toward those who might not be as technically savvy as you are is a healthy social emotion, but we have already covered this ground.
it is almost a pc/mac type of argument. you are very happy cleaning up your temp files and cookies, having ad-blockers, and on and on...running a clean ship, so to speak. i'm more of a mac user, happy to have all the magic happening behind the scenes, unaware of the mechanics, protected behind intelligent design. whereas mac focuses on the human experience, pc's are more anarchistic, depending on individual responsibility.
how does this apply to the article?
the online world is a virtual representative of the real world, but without a governing set of principles. it is anarchy, and such a state is rather conducive to creative energies as long as governing forces do not emerge. when they do, in the form of dominant presence, we are called to ask if such a presence is 'good' or 'bad' for the future of the experience. your dismissal of the article is a dismissal of an issue of scale, and here i think you are missing the point. most likely, google has operated with its power relatively fairly. that is not the point of the article, the point is how google is becoming a structural giant in a world that governs information, the lifeblood of society. do we agree that monopoly is unhealthy in a competitive market?

The-Dixie-Flatline

Maybe I was being a tad unfair. The bit I found silly was the sort of reversed denial of service action being urged in the final paragraph: as I said I would prefer to see information and advice.

I do agree that Google is getting a bit large let us say, but I'm not sure you could call it a monopoly. There's other build-your-own-site sites, shared app sites, groups sites etc available for the same price (free) and, like it or not, they have the best general-use search engine too, and at least they seperate the ads into clearly defined areas of the screen. If they have a near, or getting to be near, monopoly then I think that for the most part they've actually built it by having a more popular product.

I don't personally like their links based 'popularity' structuring of search results for the simple reason that in order to make a site popular, you need to get up the list high enough for people to spot your site and link to it, yet the only way to put a site high in their ratings is to have links to it, hence the fact that even a wikipedia stub article will almost certainly be one of the top three links, as there are more links out there to wikipedia as a whole than any other site, even if there's none to that page.

What worries me most about them is as I said earlier, the data-hoarding, which all ISPs, search engines and such do. While there's been relatively few cases like the AOL one I linked to earlier I think there's a real danger of them finding other ways to abuse it in the future.

I've never actually seen a mac in operation so I don't know much about how things work on them, but I always thought mac users tended to be more tec-savvy? Both IE and FF, and I suspect most other browsers, can be set to delete history, cookies and such every time you close the browser - an option I think should be opt-out rather than opt-in, or at least made a lot more obvious to the novice or non-teccy user.

Finally a thought on creative anarchy vs emerging governing forces. It's kind of a vicious circle I think. Without governing forces there's no real way to curb rampant commercialisation, and in most cases the people trying to keep 'government off the net' are the same people bemoaning the ad-targetting tracking cookies etc that only some sort of government or other generally agreed upon body with governmental-like powers could curb and/or ban. I'm not saying anyone's right or wrong there, just pointing out the catch-22 situation.

Finally finally ... Just remembered something I saw on a BBC documentary a few weeks back: The initial reason (or one of) for the commercialisation of google was that they were spending out a lot of money on hardware and server-time. Rather than pass the cost on to users or sway the results on a pay-per-ranking system they sold side-of-page advertising space instead. It's all got a lot more involved since then of course.

Oh and FINALLY finally lol - the first major commercialisation of the web was Amazon, not Google.

I'll stop now before I get to novel-proportions ...

The-Dixie-Flatline

Maybe I was being a tad unfair. The bit I found silly was the sort of reversed denial of service action being urged in the final paragraph: as I said I would prefer to see information and advice.

I do agree that Google is getting a bit large let us say, but I'm not sure you could call it a monopoly. There's other build-your-own-site sites, shared app sites, groups sites etc available for the same price (free) and, like it or not, they have the best general-use search engine too, and at least they seperate the ads into clearly defined areas of the screen. If they have a near, or getting to be near, monopoly then I think that for the most part they've actually built it by having a more popular product.

I don't personally like their links based 'popularity' structuring of search results for the simple reason that in order to make a site popular, you need to get up the list high enough for people to spot your site and link to it, yet the only way to put a site high in their ratings is to have links to it, hence the fact that even a wikipedia stub article will almost certainly be one of the top three links, as there are more links out there to wikipedia as a whole than any other site, even if there's none to that page.

What worries me most about them is as I said earlier, the data-hoarding, which all ISPs, search engines and such do. While there's been relatively few cases like the AOL one I linked to earlier I think there's a real danger of them finding other ways to abuse it in the future.

I've never actually seen a mac in operation so I don't know much about how things work on them, but I always thought mac users tended to be more tec-savvy? Both IE and FF, and I suspect most other browsers, can be set to delete history, cookies and such every time you close the browser - an option I think should be opt-out rather than opt-in, or at least made a lot more obvious to the novice or non-teccy user.

Finally a thought on creative anarchy vs emerging governing forces. It's kind of a vicious circle I think. Without governing forces there's no real way to curb rampant commercialisation, and in most cases the people trying to keep 'government off the net' are the same people bemoaning the ad-targetting tracking cookies etc that only some sort of government or other generally agreed upon body with governmental-like powers could curb and/or ban. I'm not saying anyone's right or wrong there, just pointing out the catch-22 situation.

Finally finally ... Just remembered something I saw on a BBC documentary a few weeks back: The initial reason (or one of) for the commercialisation of google was that they were spending out a lot of money on hardware and server-time. Rather than pass the cost on to users or sway the results on a pay-per-ranking system they sold side-of-page advertising space instead. It's all got a lot more involved since then of course.

Oh and FINALLY finally lol - the first major commercialisation of the web was Amazon, not Google.

I'll stop now before I get to novel-proportions ...

Anonymous

You don't have to be a success and depend on advertising. Adbusters of all magazines is a good example of that. If we stretch it to TV, then the BBC in the UK and most European countries have ad-free TV channels. Who's paying for that? The people! And there's a clear difference with advertising-sponsored TV channels because the latter dictates the content. And if Google wouldn't exist, I'm sure you would still find your fair share of entertainment and information on the internet. Originally internet was supposed to be a network of computers working together, not one corporation running it. Most evil done in this world always started with good intentions...

Anonymous

You don't have to be a success and depend on advertising. Adbusters of all magazines is a good example of that. If we stretch it to TV, then the BBC in the UK and most European countries have ad-free TV channels. Who's paying for that? The people! And there's a clear difference with advertising-sponsored TV channels because the latter dictates the content. And if Google wouldn't exist, I'm sure you would still find your fair share of entertainment and information on the internet. Originally internet was supposed to be a network of computers working together, not one corporation running it. Most evil done in this world always started with good intentions...

KenVallario

it really is that simple....if, of course, you believe that all individuals are only responsible for themselves. this is an ancient debate, that has never been adequately resolved.
the problem is, do those of us who understand the power of information manipulation have a duty to those who, due to lower powers of discernment, are vulnerable?
this is at the heart of much of what we debate here and in just about every political division. are we to protect one another or not?
i'm of the school of protection, feeling that we belong to a human family, and that intelligence and wisdom are rare qualities and come with certain responsibilities to the whole.
if because of my understanding of power, i choose only to protect myself, i am forced to ask myself, what is the point? how does that serve the continuation of my growth? i believe it does not. if i sacrifice my time and energy now and then to share what i know, or my intuitions, then those become more fully developed.
using or not using is not the question...the question is about nature, about us, about what we want out of our world, and our servers.

KenVallario

it really is that simple....if, of course, you believe that all individuals are only responsible for themselves. this is an ancient debate, that has never been adequately resolved.
the problem is, do those of us who understand the power of information manipulation have a duty to those who, due to lower powers of discernment, are vulnerable?
this is at the heart of much of what we debate here and in just about every political division. are we to protect one another or not?
i'm of the school of protection, feeling that we belong to a human family, and that intelligence and wisdom are rare qualities and come with certain responsibilities to the whole.
if because of my understanding of power, i choose only to protect myself, i am forced to ask myself, what is the point? how does that serve the continuation of my growth? i believe it does not. if i sacrifice my time and energy now and then to share what i know, or my intuitions, then those become more fully developed.
using or not using is not the question...the question is about nature, about us, about what we want out of our world, and our servers.

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