Book review: Peter Olsthoorn – De macht van Google

On: September 17, 2011
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About Erik van Mastrigt
Received my BA degree Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam in summer 2011. Took part in the MediaLAB Amsterdam and together with three other students, we realized the first augmented reality exhibition in the Netherlands, commissioned by the Stedelijk Museum. Worked for MKB-Nederland on the question whether they should extent their political lobbying by using new media. Besides studying I spend time on training/coaching an Under 17s football team and my part time job as a taxi driver at a reliable company :) I like mobile devices, gadgets, politics, photography, history, human behavior, Prague, Scrooge McDuck and coffee.


What does Google know from us? Since search engines are able to track the user’s search queries, personal information can be gathered in order to improve the engine’s accuracy and provide better results. In De macht van Google (The power of Google), Peter Olsthoorn analyses the pros and cons of Google’s increasing influence on the internet.

Since the foundation in 1998, multimedia journalist Peter Olsthoorn follows Google closely. He was one of the first internet reporters worldwide and has grown to an authority on internet criticism. Many of his publications consider topics like society, internet, blogging and innovation. Google has obviously been one of the most innovative enterprises in the last decennium and obtained much influence in the evolution of the digital society. Therefore, Olsthoorn is the right person to publish nearly the first analysis of the Google-imperium, taking a lead to his American fellow worker Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Do you want to find out whether your diet provides enough vitamins to stay healthy and full of energy? Are you still not cured of a cold? Or perhaps you are looking for some new cheap car parts? In almost every cases you start by entering a query into Google’s search field. According to digital measuring agency comScore, Google has a 65.7% share in the worldwide search engine market. Following Olsthoorn’s figures, in The Netherlands this percentage is even higher: 95.6% in july 2010.

Peter Olsthoorn describes Google’s vertiginous growth in the last decade, that only started with a search engine and the built-in ranking algorithm PageRank. This new way of sorting search results led to much attention by several periodicals and the popularity of raised very quick. At the time Google Adwords was launched in 2000, the success was enormous and the company became able to make profits without external fundings. More than 500 projects have been launched since then, and lots of them silently disappeared. Services like Gmail, Maps and Docs are examples of successful projects, funded by the personalized advertisements that AdWords and AdSense provides. The possible impact of all user data Google saves, is the main topic in De macht van Google, subtitled ‘Werkt Google voor jou of werk jij voor Google?’ (Works Google for you or do you work for Google?). The TROS, a Dutch broadcaster, made a nine minute item about this topic and the release of Olsthoorn’s book. Unfortunately, the video is only available in Dutch. The second video contains a brief summary of the same issue in English.

At the time the book was released in October 2010, Olsthoorn held lots of presentations and took part in many debates to promote his work. On the other hand it showed the topic’s actuality and triggered the interest of many internet users, concerning their privacy and the power Google generates by personalizing all user’s input. A brief enumeration of things Google may know from you when using one or more of their services: your queries in the search engines like Search, Images, Maps, News, Scholar etc. including the links you click on the result page; your social life by Calendar and Picasa; the content of your Gmail, your financial behavior by Finance and Checkout and, more recently, your friends by Buzz and Google+. By gathering search queries, Google may know your name age, nationality, residence, hobbies, fantasies, sexual preferences and so on. Even though the data is anonymous, it could not be too difficult to match a profile and a real life person. The question is whether users have to concern about a commercial enterprise owning that much of personal data.

Yet actually this is the way how digital things work. Google is by far not the only enterprise that mines data out of their database. Data mining has been broadly adopted by several commercial industries. Think of your mobile phone carrier: as long as your phone is connected to their network, they know your location and could use it for analytical purposes. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) knows which sites you visit. Perhaps your favorite supermarket keeps track on your daily groceries by their special customer discount card. Your virtual data body potentially exists at many companies that try to find patterns and create customer profiles, in order to provide a better service and increase the profits.

Olsthoorn analyses several cases among Google and privacy issues. Despite of complaints of privacy protecting agencies, prosecutions, trails and fines, the company is aware not to force privacy laws. The Don’t be evil slogan and the in 2007 introduced Code of Conduct, a list of ten principles to represent Google’s philosophy. However, sometimes it still goes wrong. In 2010, when they launched Buzz to compete with Twitter, all Gmail users immediately gained access and were able to view with whom their contacts were frequently in touch. Especially bloggers complaint about this issue. Could it be worse? Yes, when it came out that Google saved data of unsecured personal home networks while photographing for Street View.

So should we trust Google? On the third page of the introduction, Olsthoorn writes ‘Ik vind Google geweldig’, basically the equivalent of ‘I love Google’. And that is exactly what most people do. Users have a blind trust in the services because they can not imagine the web without Google’s existence, or are not able to find their digital way otherwise. Google makes people able to quickly find what they need to know. On the other hand, Google serves us with our data input. Even though Olsthoorn answers the trust question with a convinced ‘Yes!’, he argues that Google needs a continuous, critical attention in order to stay the ‘most loveliest enterprise on earth’.

Peter Olsthoorn presents with De macht van Google a relatively complete analysis of Google’s services and infrastructure. At some points, the reader might get bored by the huge number of facts and figures. Yet this shows how complex the enterprise is put together. For those who want to get a better insight or understanding about the way Google works and deals with all the power they gathered in de last thirteen years, De macht van Google is definitely a must read!

Olsthoorn, Peter. ‘De macht van Google’. Utrecht: Kosmos Uitgevers B.V., 2010.

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