When I heard that Google was rolling out yet one more application, in the form of Google Buzz, the first thought that came to mind was that the Internet is starting to feel like a one-company town. I was soon online, catching up on the fascinating story of Pullman, Illinois. Built on the edge of Chicago by the Pullman Palace Car Company in the 1880s, the 300-acre town was the company's answer to the industrial-age conundrum. How do you reap the efficiencies of gathering workers in one place without descending into urban chaos? Pullman did it by controlling everything. Workers and their families attended Pullman schools, shopped in Pullman groceries, and worshiped in Pullman churches.
All went along well enough in Pullman, it seems, until the summer of 1894. That's when a wage riot was put down by U.S. marshals and army troops, according to a contemporaneous report by federal investigators I stumbled across. The Pullman Company's paternalism was blamed for creating a repressive and unstable environment for workers.
The tools joyously employed by me as I indulged these dark musings about how Google is turning the Internet into a company town? Google Search, naturally. Google Books. Google Scholar.
The comparison between Pullman the company's relationship to Pullman the town and Google's relationship to the Internet breaks down upon close examination, of course. The Internet offers choice, not limitation. (As Google may well find out as Buzz attempts to compete with Twitter and Facebook.) Perhaps more important is that unlike for the workers of Pullman, Google's omnipresence is beneficial for both the company and its clients. Still, those distinctions don't completely negate the fact that Google is becoming an ever larger part of how many of us experience the cyber environment. As dependent as many of us -- governments included -- are becoming on one company, it's only sensible to bring to the forefront the trade-offs we make in that relationship.
Google famously sees its mission as organizing the world's information. As observers, we're constantly relearning what that means, from Google Reader to YouTube to Blogger to Gmail to Google News, the latter two of which were both developed by engineers making use of the company's famous "20 percent time" which frees them, one day a week, to work on a project of their choosing. We're also witnessing expansions into the basic fiber of the Internet. Google's introduction of a faster version of the domain-name server system is symbolic, Ars Technica's Iljitsch van Beijnum wrote, of a "quest to provide every Internet-related service itself." And the company is starting to get physical. In a welcome challenge to the telcos, Google recently announced an experiment to rollout robust broadband to homes.
Google's increasing pervasiveness is not merely on the services front. Google's expansion into more and more software applications has been accompanied by an expansion into politics. Five years ago, Google brought on its first full-time lobbyist in Washington. In 2009, the company dropped more than $4 million on lobbying. That's more than half of what the 35-year-old Microsoft spent on lobbying that same year. Still, Google's most effective voice is probably CEO and Chair Eric Schmidt, an early Obama supporter who is now a technology adviser to the White House. In the recent dustup over hacking incidents into Google's servers that the company traced back to China, the U.S. State Department and Google looked a lot like a pair of titans navigating the world of foreign diplomacy as they lobbed complaints against China, hinting at ultimatums. (Google has since turned over its investigations to the National Security Agency.)
Company officials in D.C. recently held a session with Republican operatives to debrief on how Sen. Scott Brown used not only Google's ad tools but Google Voice, Google Chat, and Google Docs to organize his upset victory in the race to fill the Senate seat in Massachusetts left empty by Ted Kennedy's death. That had National Journal asking, "Why would a giant like Google ... care about increasing its share of the meager dollars devoted to digital strategy in political campaigns?" For one thing, helping politicians win elections brings Google goodwill, and Google is undeniably an American success story.
For the rest of us, though, Google's appeal is largely the cornucopia of rather amazing Web apps the company makes available for free. Office software that once cost hundreds of dollars costs nothing online. Video-streaming tools are now free, as are publishing platforms, satellite imagery, GPS, 3-D modeling tools, and gigabytes of e-mail storage. The tools become even more powerful when linked. Google's YouTube, for example, now offers captioning in dozens of languages, including Arabic and Farsi, thanks to Google's ambitious and promising Translate project. Used in combination, Google Search and Google Maps on my iPhone make life in the modern urban chaos that is New York City far more manageable. I use the pair together nearly every day.
But free apps don't cover all sins. The potential cost of the cache of personal information Google has on its users became real with last week's rollout of Buzz.
Google's remarkably boneheaded move was pre-populating users' public Google Buzz profiles based on whom they e-mail the most -- whether that's a new boyfriend or a government source. In one widely circulated post, a blogger slammed Google for automatically networking her to an abusive ex-husband. "My privacy concerns are not trite," she wrote. "They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up."
It's almost mind-blowing to think how much Google could have exposed about its regular users had the company linked their Buzz profiles to their search history and other records of their Internet habits. Also last week, Google raised concerns by shutting down a handful of music blogs after receiving complaints from records labels that the bloggers in question were posting links to songs that were covered by copyright. In some cases, the company reached inside the blogging interface to reset to "draft" status posts that had raised red flags.
Do you have to buy into conspiracy theories to become a little nervous about just how dependent on Google we're becoming? Maybe. Maybe not. It's encouraging that Google quickly responded to the outrage over Buzz's privacy failings by tweaking the program's defaults to require opting in on social-network building and by discussing those concerns on one of their many in-house blogs, which serve as nice portals into the company's thinking.
One reaction is to diversify: Hotmail instead of Gmail, MapQuest instead of Google Maps, AOL Instant Messenger instead of Google Chat -- though that would mean losing the accumulated benefits of linked services. Another reasonable response is to focus efforts on improving our (new) media literacy so that we're more mindful of how much even free stuff can still cost. If we don't force ourselves to be aware of those trade-offs, we risk stumbling into an increasing dependence on yet one more company that's too big to fail.