Friday, September 08, 2006

10 things the Google ethics committee could discuss

It's reported that Google, whose motto is Do No Evil, has an ethics committee to debate its impact on the world - something that will doubtless grow as the company floats. So what sort of things might it discuss?

Google workers ruminating
1. From being a stripped-down search engine, Google is now a major player in advertising. Its webmail system, Gmail, runs on inserting adverts into people's e-mails. "How far should this go?" asks Danny Sullivan, editor of Internet Search Engine Watch. "Is it ethical to put ads on absolutely everything they do, almost like a supermarket floor?"

2. How much personal data should it collect? The company is going to understand more and more about what people are doing online, says Sullivan. But does that mean our information is fair game?

3. How much permission should it seek when it wants to "mine" public data for new facts, asks Danny O'Brien, co-editor of technology newsletter NTK. "Say Google designed a system that could scan photographs online, and tell you where they'd been taken. Would it be OK to collect all the snapshots uploaded on the net and index them, even when people could find out where you lived from your photo album? Is it OK to use public information to uncover facts that might have been private?"

4. How much should the company intervene in search results? The "ethics committee", which the company says is an informal discussion between interested managers and staff, debates changes to the algorithms which order search results. Spammers who try to skew the results are one target of adjustments, according to software engineer Eran Gabber. But any alteration will change the way people see the web, so should they be undertaken lightly?

5. Does it have a role in taste and decency? Sullivan says the company will remove search results for legal considerations - but what about other cases? What about links that showed, for instance, video of American Nick Berg being beheaded?

6. As a big company, Google has business relationships with lots of other companies - it's no longer a matter of just doing search. And business is business, so what if the company wanted to introduce "favoured status" within its results?

7. Google has become something of a standard bearer for ethics - who, for instance, would know if Yahoo had a similar committee, asks Sullivan. So should Google even be bothered about ethics now, or was that something for when it was a small affair?

8. For many people, Google is the internet. They use it as the front end and trust it to give them what they need - the Google deskbar makes this even more apparent. Does Google have any feeling for how it filters the net, do many of its users even know that they get a filtered view of cyberspace or how much filtering is going on?

9. Google is not a monopoly; there's plenty of competition. But should it strive to become one? What effect might that have?

10. Do they feel lucky? Sitting on billions of dollars, what is the best way to share their luck?