Why not searching on Google is stupid

Privacy-concious users complain about the search engine giant–but they do have a choice
Alain Bachellier/Flickr

Last week, I had the honour of speaking at the Online Educa conference in Berlin, an annual meeting of education professionals that this year attracted 2,000 visitors from more than 100 countries. Conference organizers have put up a video of my speech, which was about how food technology is driving economic growth in the developing world and, as a consequence, the collective demand for education there.

I also had the pleasure of participating in a debate on technological developments and their effects on privacy and learning. My teammate Peter Bowers, a teacher in the U.K., and I had the task of arguing against the following statement:

This house expresses its concern about the effect developments in technology are increasingly having on personal liberty and believes this will have serious consequences for learning in the future.

On Thursday, before the debate, I wrote about how I thought the statement was indefensible; that technology enabled liberty and therefore learning like no other force on the planet. While true, the debate was ultimately quite lively and resulted in an almost even split among the audience. Alas, our side lost by a narrow margin.

It turns out the statement was more nuanced than perhaps any of us initially thought. Effectively, the position it advocates is true if taken at face value. Should we be concerned about technology and will it have serious consequences on learning? Absolutely – it’s hard to argue against either of those points.

But Peter and I both took the essence of the statement to be more negative–that we shouldn’t just be “concerned” about technology, we should in fact be worried about it, which of course neither of us believed, so that’s what we argued against.

In our concluding statements, I said that being “concerned” about new technologies is great: “Concerns” are a natural part of any technology’s evolution that help filter out its negative effects and ensure the positive potential is developed. I also pointed out that all technologies have trade-offs. They solve existing problems and often introduce new ones; technologies that succeed are the ones that solve more issues than they create. Lastly, I said democracy and capitalism (a.k.a. market forces) inevitably prevent technological abuse, so if anything, it’s better to spend time and effort protecting the checks and balances than it is to worry about the technology itself. In other words, make sure safety measures are in place and the rest will naturally sort itself out.

A number of people in the audience disagreed, but one particular comment startled me. One gentleman interjected while I was making my case to say he had no choice but to use Google, which he didn’t really trust with his personal information, which seemed to draw some agreement from others in the audience.

When I wrapped up my comments, I sat down and did a quick search that turned up at least a hundred alternative search engines to Google, including a few–such as Duck Duck Go and Yippy–that promise not to gather users’ information. I put that fact out there and asked why he still used Google for searches. He didn’t answer, nor did anyone else.

So that’s my question: Why do people who are concerned about their privacy still use Google? The company simply doesn’t lock users into any of its services, with the possible exception of Android (which is ironic, given the current flap over Carrier IQ). Users must have a Google acccount to get any real value out of Android smartphones, although that doesn’t mean they actually have to use the account. As the search example shows, there are plenty of alternative choices out there for just about all of Google’s services. Why don’t people use them?

There are a few possible answers, and I’m afraid none reflects well on users themselves. The most obvious reason is inertia; people are simply too lazy to find out about competing services or too habitual to try something new and/or switch. There’s also the question of whether people actually trust Google more than they think they do. After all, how much do we really know about Duck Duck Go or Yippy? Maybe it’s a case of going with the devil you know.

More ominously–and I think this is what was behind some of the anti-Google sentiment that reared up during the debate–is that real choice is actually feared. While people say they want freedom and the ability to choose from lots of options in everything from search engines to cellphone providers, the reality is that many only want it if it’s packaged nicely and spoonfed to them. It’s one of those things that people simply aren’t honest about, like when we say we want to eat healthy, yet the statistics show we continue to stuff Quarter Pounders in our faces in record numbers.

There’s one simple reason why people use Google–in many of its services, it’s currently the best. But that quality costs money to deliver, which is perhaps where the problem lies. Many people just don’t understand that in order to recoup expenses on what are almost uniformly free services, Google has to make money somehow. As a very astute lawyer who I interviewed a little while ago said, if you’re not paying for the product then chances are the product is “you.”

In Google’s case, users’ information is used to help target advertising for its clients. The company doesn’t identify individuals, still, your information–where you are, what you’re searching–earns the company advertising dollars. More and more people are coming to understand this tradeoff, but clearly not enough yet, which is probably why the company’s chairman Eric Schmidt recently told Europe that it’s too “pessimistic.”

Fortunately, as this understanding grows so too will the visibility of and prospects for alternative services such as Duck Duck Go and Yippy. If enough people decide they don’t want Google gathering their information, they’ll seek out these other services and defect to them. Google will then have to adapt or cede such concerned users to rivals. There go those checks and balances at work.

In the meantime, inertia and fear of actually exercising choice–stoked by manipulative competitors and a gullible media–will continue to spook some people into thinking they have no choice or freedom. That’s too bad because, in fact, we have more than we’ve ever had.