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Julia of The Folks' Web writes this smart and helpful response to this blog:

... Vaidhyanathan seems to think that it would have been better if the government would have set up something like this as a public service, rather than having a company such as Google do it. The broader version of this sentiment—that the government is more trustworthy than corporations—is pretty common, I think, and I find it very curious. The vast majority of the time, the government poses a far bigger danger to you than any corporation ever could, simply because the government has the guns and the jails and the authority to use them on you—“a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence,” to use the political science term for it. Corporations that make use of data mining or collaborative filtering or other tools that let them learn about your tastes and habits may be able to annoy you with eerily targeted advertisements, but only the government can take that data and decide that the pattern indicates that you're a criminal and ruin your life with it.

The exception to that dichotomy, of course, is the corporations that collaborate with the government in the “deciding that you're a criminal and ruining your life” department—think the RIAA, MPAA, and Microsoft. But for the most part the corporations that collaborate with the government in that way are the corporations that sell digital products directly to consumers and who need the threat of government punishment to keep consumers from pirating their stuff. Google (wisely, I think, for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post) has realized that more money can be made more easily by selling advertisements to third parties rather than selling stuff to customers. In that situation there's no reason for Google and its users to have an antagonistic relationship with each other, because economically they're both on the same side: both benefit when the users get what they want, which is free and copious access to Google's content and services.

So that's the short version of why I trust Google with my data: because they don't themselves have the power to harm me with it, and because they have no incentive to collaborate with governmental agencies that could harm me with it. The fact that Google has a history of going to court to fight the government when it tries to get data from them shows, I think, that Google itself known on which side its bread is buttered. ...

This is wonderful. But I do not think the state is more trustworthy than Google. I think the state is more accountable than Google. Democratic republics, at least, are accountable to citizens.

I think trust is a luxury and is very overrated. BTW, Google does have an incentive to collaborate with governmental agencies. Just check out China. And remember, just because Google has had one orientation toward both users and government does not mean it will stay that way. Google is involved in so many fields now that one cannot describe its relationship with the state as simply oppositional.

Also, what I was writing about in the post to which Julia objected was the science data service. We are talking about science that is already publicly funded. So imagining some libertarian state of science and wondering whether the state can be "trusted" with data misses the point.

Still, Julia's post is really interesting and helpful. I hope she keeps commenting.

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Comments (2)

Geert Lovink on January 22, 2008 3:53 AM:

Just a short remark: the alternative to Google is not State but non-profit public infrastructure. Not all of the public domain is by definition owned and controlled by the State. Just think of building co-ops. It is up to us to dream up models that learn from the 20th century desasters such as total state control -- and corporate domination.

BTW. Google is not some satellite entity. It is not outside of the State. It can be raided by cops. A court can order access to the data. And worse: Google can already voluntarily cooperate or be infiltrated by CIA and other agencies, inside the US -- and outside. Also remember that Google is now a global corporation with employees, offices, datacenters and services across all continents.

Jardinero1 on January 23, 2008 12:15 AM:

How is the state more accountable?

If you don't like what the state is providing can you boycott the state? Can you refuse to use the state? Can you refuse to pay for the state? Can you ignore the state?

If you don't like Google, you can form a little posse and ride around telling people not to use them. If you formed the same posse and rode around telling people not to pay their taxes, disobey unjust laws and ignore the police, what do you think would happen to you?

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A book in progress by

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan

This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

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Like the Mind of God (22 posts)

All the World's Information (26 posts)

What If Big Ads Don't Work (10 posts)

Don't Be Evil (9 posts)

Is Google a Library? (43 posts)

Challenging Big Media (18 posts)

The Dossier (19 posts)

Global Google (3 posts)

Google Earth (3 posts)

A Public Utility? (19 posts)

About this Book (16 posts)

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Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)


The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)


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Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)

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