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Is Google Evil?


Remember: It knows things about you Microsoft can only dream of.

For years, Microsoft (MSFT) was public enemy number 1 among forward-thinking, open source-loving technophiles. Its software was as inescapable as it was functionally debilitating. Everywhere you looked there were fatal errors and blue screens.

The phrase "Control-ALT-Delete," an otherwise bizarre combination of words and sounds, became so common that it rolled off the tongue as one long, uninterrupted utterance, as in: "System froze? Hit Controlaltdelete."

Ask anyone what was wrong with Microsoft, and the answer was always the same: Its empire was, in a word, evil.

Today, Microsoft is no less pervasive, but the game has changed. And so has what it means to be evil. For two decades, Microsoft's goal was to put "a computer on every desk and in every home"; by and large, it succeeded. Only one problem: Since everyone has a computer, everyone uses the Internet. And the Internet is a business where Microsoft just can't seem to get ahead.

But Google (GOOG) has. Google: The anti-Microsoft. Its slogan? "Don't be evil."

Google dominates most users' online experience. It captures 60% of the market share for online search (as compared with Microsoft's 8.5 percent). Its email system, Gmail, has registered tens of millions of new users since 2004. After acquiring DoubleClick for $3.1 billion in 2007, the company solidified its ability to bring in huge revenues by becoming the Internet's biggest provider of advertising technology.

Despite Google's Microsoft-like dominance of the Internet, it has remained, for the most part, immune to serious protest from users. The fact is, Google's services are just too damn functional and fun to complain about. Google search is pitch perfect. Gmail is wondrous. And let's be honest, Google Earth might be the coolest application the Internet has ever produced - even if it is strangely useless.

And unlike Microsoft, whose moniker sounds so cold, so detached, so high-tech soulless, even Google's name has a benign ring to it.

Google! That's something a baby says. And babies aren't evil. Ever.

But Google's benevolent veneer belies the facts on the ground. Despite that do-gooder motto, or how well its products work, or how lavishly it pampers the environment and its employees, it's still a for-profit company - and companies sometimes do evil things.

Take Google's biggest red flag: privacy. Every Google search you run is recorded by a cookie, a small file that tracks your online behavior. If you use Gmail, Google parses your messages for keywords that define your Internet use.

Oh, and another thing: Your email isn't deleted when you click "delete" - that button is there just to give you an illusion of power. Google still has that power, along with your email. You don't. Not really.

What's the big deal? Put mildly, Google holds one of the largest information rolodexes on the planet.

So how are they using it? First, by selling you stuff: With AdSense, Google shows you ads for products and services that are right up your alley (or that it thinks are right up your alley, based on the information it's recorded about you). If you recently searched for "iPod" and "broken," for example, you'll probably start getting ads for how to fix your iPod (AAPL).

Again, if this service weren't so intuitively resourceful, it might seem downright criminal.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this month, a federal judge in an ongoing copyright dispute ordered Google to turn over all user data pertaining to YouTube to Viacom (VIA). Privacy advocates and Google's legal team resisted the order, and Viacom eventually backed down, agreeing to keep the information anonymous. But if they hadn't: Every video you've ever watched on YouTube (along with your IP address) would have been made a matter of public record.

If that kind of breach of privacy sounds unfathomable, consider another legal case that didn't end quite so well. Last month, Google also handed over volumes of search information to a Florida court for an obscenity trial. The reason? The defense wanted to show the judge and jury that a huge swath of Pensacola residents use Google to search for porn. In other words, the defense wanted to show that sexually explicit material is the community standard - the yardstick for establishing what is and isn't legally obscene.

When you use Google, you're not just leaving tracks in snow; you're leaving them in cement.

For now, Google uses its endless supply of data in mostly transparent ways. But in this so-called Information Age, Google's holding all the cards. Big Brother never had a better address book.

Whether or not you consider Google evil is up to you. But remember: Google knows things about you Microsoft can only dream of.

Where do you stand? Vote now in our unscientific poll.

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