Google then and now

Chatting about the generally unethical nature of Google employees/management reminded me of how much attitudes towards that company have changed. At one time I was a Google fan and a Gmail user, but I have long since repented for those particular sins.

Not that long ago things such as this would have been unthinkable. Google was supposed to be "one of us". Friendly towards hackers.

"Colin McMillen, a staff software engineer at Google who has worked at the company for eight years, said he was reprimanded by human resources for an internal post in which he stated he did not want to work with individuals who shared Damore’s beliefs. Bridget Spitznagel, an engineer who left Google last spring, said human resources demanded that she remove an internal post that linked to information about an upcoming racial justice workshop. Another former employee described being disciplined for a comment defending one of Google’s recruitment programs."

I vaguely remembered that at one time Eben Moglen gave a talk in which he praised the company in the most glowing terms, and searching in the archives I located it, from over a decade ago: Thoughts on the World's Largest Possible Computer & What It Runs On

Even allowing for variations in opinion it seems inconceivable that such praise could be heaped upon Google by anyone from the Free Software community today, but at that time the venn diagram of Googlers and Free Software coders was yet to significantly diverge and GPL3 had only recently been published. The problem at that time was mostly one of Google taking GPL code and making modifications but not sharing back the changes - something which was technically legal for services delivered over a network but not exactly in the spirit of Free Software, and which the AGPL license was intended to fix. Hence in this talk Moglen seems to be suggesting either adopting AGPL or arriving at some form of gentleman's agreement for the mutual benefit of the software "ecosystem" in which some percentage of modifications would be shared. That obviously didn't happen, or only to a minor degree.

Over a decade later and things have really changed for the worse.

"If an employee posted on Google Plus or a mailing list about diversity, he or she would often be met with responses that seemed designed to draw them into an argument, according to the current and former employees. If the employee took the bait and responded angrily to the provocation, their response would be screen-capped and sent to HR or to an alt-right site. The interactions seemed tailor-made to get Googlers who spoke up in favor of diversity in trouble so they would speak up less frequently, employees who experienced it said."

It sounds as if there may still be a few good hackers within Google who are trying to reform the culture from within, but that they're battling against a corporate agenda which is at best unhelpful and at worst downright sinister.

Google is effectively the new Microsoft, but worse than Microsoft was in the olden days because they have extensive spying and data mining powers which would have been unimaginable back when the battle was only over dominance of the personal computing desktop.

If Google allows itself to become a vehicle for the alt-right then the amount of damage which they could do is very substantial indeed. This isn't something which should be taken lightly. In the past people trusted Google with their emails, but imagine what could happen if your emails are being read by the same type of folks who brought tiki torches to Charlottesville - or more likely processed by algorithms with those kinds of beliefs built in - and what they might do with that. It's the stuff of nightmares.

One of the sad things which I often encounter when working on Freedombone is that many FOSS web systems contain hardcoded links to Google servers, typically in the form of fonts or jquery. This must enable Google to have very extensive knowledge of who uses which apps and how often, even if they're not Google's own apps. It's a problem which I've not seen publicly discussed in talks at any conference, but which there needs to be more education about. If their AMP system becomes popular then they'll have even more knowledge of this kind.

Like many people I havn't stopped using Google but have minimized my use of it. I still use YouTube and occasionally search and maps. I use LineageOS, which is based on Android, but don't install the Play store and just use F-droid. I hope that PeerTube and streetview-like additions to Openstreetmaps will become viable alternatives to Google in the next few years. Giant and unaccountable corporations running everything are a significant problem. However it's achieved, I think we need to get back to more people running their own internet systems and bypassing the badness of companies such as Google, Facebook or Twitter.