05.29.12

Google Thinks You’re Stupid—and Works to Keep You in the Dark

Google doesn’t trust anyone—people, officials, even governments—to understand anything. As a result, it is the most secretive Internet entity—and disingenuous about that secrecy, says Andrew Blum, author of ‘Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.’

If every technological extension is also an amputation—as Marshall McLuhan said—then I wonder what part of me Google will cut off next.

First there was the part that forgot to include attachments with emails. “Did you mean to attach files?” Gmail helpfully asked one day. “You wrote, ‘I’m attaching’ in your message, but there are no files attached.” Then there was the part that could quote Marshall McLuhan without Googling. Soon, perhaps, I’ll actually be looking for a recipe for “marshmallow fondant”—not the old master himself. We used to say that Google was making us stupid. But now the process is complete: Google knows we’re stupid. Quite how stupid, though, you might not realize.

For the last several years I have been on a quest—see my new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet—to visit the actual, physical Internet: its wires, buildings, and places. We tend to think of infrastructure like this—when we bother to think of it at all—as top secret and obscured, the kinds of places listed in WikiLeaks dumps, protected by rent-a-cops, and generally inscrutable. All those things are undoubtedly true.

Yet the Internet I visited was also a surprisingly friendly place, populated by smart, welcoming people, proud of what they do and eager to tell me about it. Inevitably, when I arrived at some unmarked building crucial to the network’s functioning, the same thing happened: the veil of secrecy didn’t descend, but lifted. My guides happily led me around, and nearly always spent extra time to make sure I understood what I was looking at. This happened dozens of times, all over the world. The cumulative message was clear: It’s my Internet, but it’s your Internet too. You can know how it works. You should know how it works.

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The one exception to that openness was Google—and the strange hypocrisy of that is something I’ve yet to get over. This is the company you likely entrust with your personal correspondence, your most intimate instant messages, and a full accounting of your curiosity (going back years). But Google does not trust you.

And it’s not that they don’t trust you to keep a secret, as you trust them, but rather they don’t trust you to understand. Their stance is the corporate equivalent of a 1950s-era gynecologist who believes women can’t comprehend what’s being done to their own bodies. “Don’t worry about a thing” Google purrs. “We’ll take care of you.”

Google treats governments this way, too. Last week The New York Times reported on Google’s stonewalling of privacy investigations begun by former Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. “Google resisted providing more information, even in the face of its acknowledgment that the collection was a mistake,” Blumenthal recalled.

All companies keep secrets, if some more than others. This is disturbing (if predictable) behavior from an oil or pharmaceutical company; from an “information” company it is chilling. What repeatedly strikes me aren’t Google’s secrecy, obfuscation, or blank denials, but the flat-footed implication that those of us who are curious—whether journalists, attorneys general, or you—can be brushed aside, as if we don’t even understand what it is we’re not understanding. When an effort at explanation is made, it’s done with cartoons and bright colors, or with animations that look like something my 2-year-old would like.

Johannes Caspar, a data-protection official in Germany, certainly felt this way when, as part of an inquiry into Google’s Street View mapping program, he asked to inspect one of Google’s data-collection cars. As The New York Times reported: “Google first said it didn’t know where they were, so it couldn’t produce them. Then, on May 3, it allowed a technical expert in Mr. Caspar’s office to see a vehicle. But the hard drive with data was missing.”

Perhaps they forgot to attach it.

When I visited a Google data center—and by “visited” I mean “was given a tour of the parking lot”—I experienced this condescension firsthand. Knowing the tight lid Google kept on its facilities, I had been pleasantly surprised when my request was granted to see their data center in The Dalles, Ore. The place had been portrayed as a poorly hidden, smog-belching factory, an image incongruous with the clean white pages, friendly demeanor, and immediate access we otherwise associate with Google. Company officials had been vocal about turning over a new leaf, releasing some statistics from their data centers around the world, and even a short video tour. But what followed was a propagandistic farce.

Walking past a large data center building, painted yellow like a penitentiary, I asked what went on inside. Did this building contain the computers that crawl through the Web for the search index? Did it process search queries? Did it store email? “You mean what The Dalles does?” my guide responded. “That’s not something that we probably discuss. But I’m sure that data is available internally.” (I bet.) It was a scripted non-answer, however awkwardly expressed. And it might have been excusable, if the contrast weren’t so stark with the dozens of other pieces of the Internet that I visited. Google was the outlier—not only for being the most secretive but the most disingenuous about that secrecy.

After my tour of Google’s parking lot, I joined a hand-picked group of Googlers for lunch in their cafeteria overlooking the Columbia River. The conversation consisted of a PR handler prompting each of them to say a few words about how much they liked living in The Dalles and working at Google. (It was some consolation that they were treated like children, too.) I considered expressing my frustration at the kabuki going on, but I decided it wasn’t their choice. It was bigger than them. Eventually, emboldened by my peanut-butter cups, I said only that I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to go inside a data center and learn more. My PR handler’s response was immediate: “Senators and governors have been disappointed too!”

Then a guy came off the lunch line wearing a T-shirt that said: “People who think they know everything are annoying to those of us who actually do.”