Ethical Dilemma — Google’s data collection: geographic results

“We Know Where You Are. We Know Where You’ve Been. We Can More or Less Know What You’re Thinking About” (Saint, Business Insider). A quote by Google’s ex-CEO and now executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Google, which needs little to no introduction to the average person, specializes in organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. As of today, Google’s market capitalization exceeds five hundred billion USD, making it one of the most valuable publicly traded companies in the world. Google specializes in different disciples in a range of industries and is most known for its powerful search engine capabilities and customer oriented results. In this essay I will discuss Google’s practices of controlling what is visible on user’s screens, and challenge the ethics of this principle. First, I will cover Google’s practices for gather user information. Secondly, I will specifically focus on the geographic aspect of search results. Next, I will review Google’s intentions and motivations. Finally, I’ll review how geographic information search results might affect Google and its users in the future.

Google is a dominant player when it comes to connecting users to information they’re most likely looking for in a vast sea of unrelated data. Their search engine is extremely fast and precise. One of the notes I made from looking at Google’s homepage is that it’s simple and has minimalistic design. From my perspective, Google’s homepage design was built as a possible deception to the user, by keeping it very simple as if nothing else is going on their homepage. The complete opposite is happening when a user input a search query and one of the most robust, intelligent and complicated search engine algorithms in the world takes control. As Tene states in his journal What Google Knows: Privacy and Internet Search Engines, “we adore Google for its simple, modest-looking interface masking a hyper-complicated algorithm, which is the very essence of online ingenuity” (Tene, 2). Moreover, there is nothing on Google homepage that states or notifies the users of the actions Google will take once they submit a search query. Google analyzes and stores every query a person enters, which users might not know about. It also creates a log of searches and can directly connect that log to a specific user via IP address, which is a unique number assigned to a user’s computer. Therefore, Google can add new searches to a user’s log by identifying the users IP address. Overtime, this will create a vast database for every user. With the amount of servers in Google’s possession, every search query is stored; no matter how long, short, silly, repetitive, distinct, admirable, terrifying, etc. This information will then be used to predict future searches, which Google has complete control over. So, what will Google show to its users?

When it comes to data collection, in my opinion Google should follow Deontology principles and the duty to do the right thing for its users. People who submit search queries should be informed by Google about storage practices and usage of data collection. I strongly believe that users should be notified before using Google’s services and accept the terms and conditions. Therefore, a user can make a decision whether they still want to perform a search through Google or perform a search with a competitor. This will provide the users with a frame of choice, which they didn’t have before. By adding a disclaimer or privacy notification on the Google homepage, which they currently don’t have, users could make an informed decision. This will follow deontology principles and conceive informed, educated and comfortable users. In a practical sense, Google is collecting data from billions of users simultaneously all over the world. It is their duty to inform every single user about their storing practices.

A secondary concept, closely related to deontology is Jeffrey Pfeffer’s concept of people, profits, and perspective. “Getting good financial numbers at the cost of people is not only not rewarded but not tolerated for very long, reflecting the company’s belief that in the long run, the numbers will decline if people are not being treated properly” (Pfeffer 402). Whether that’s the physical or mental well-being of employees or customers, having a profit-driven approach will eventually hurt the organization. Again, this will be directly connected to having informed users who know about the data collection and storage practices of Google. By treating people well, they will, in turn, become loyal and returning customers that will happily use Google’s services, because they feel secure and respected. Creating informed users will benefit Google in the long run as well.

On the contrary, one can argue: what if someone is planning to do something evil, such as a terrorist attack? In this case, it would be beneficial for Google not to display the privacy disclaimer on their homepage. If Google displayed a data collection notification the people planning the attack would not use Google’s search engine. They wouldn’t want to give away their geographic location. From a quick experiment on the Google homepage, I typed but did not press enter: ‘planning a ter’. Interestingly enough the first suggestion from Google was, ‘planning a terrorist attack’, followed by, ‘planning a terraced garden’ followed by, ‘planning a territory’ and finally, ‘planning a short-term weight management program’. The first suggestion from Google is connected to harming innocent people, why did this come up? I’ve never searched for ‘planning a terrorist attack’. This would mean that Google is suggesting this query based on common and reoccurring searches, whether playful or serious. Google stores these searches and an IP address to the computer who searched it and Google knows who they are. Therefore, when it comes to user privacy nobody is exempt, even people who are attempting to hide.

In 2015, there were about 8.6 billion devices compared to 7.3 billion people living on this earth. There are now more mobile devices than people, according to a study by a US market research company. By 2018 there is projected to be 12.1 billion devices worldwide (Radicati, 2). In the every growing world of technology, which is changing every month, week or every day, new advancements are constantly overriding each other. Everyone competing to make a mark in the world and be part of history. At times, some will cross ethical boundaries in order to positively change the world. This is the ethical test I bring to Google and their results practices based on a person’s geographic location. If you don’t allow Google to track your location, for example opening a web page and you are asked via a notification at the bottom of the browser: “ wants to use your devices location.” Even if I deny this request from Google, they still approximate location based on the following components to help provide users with the most relevant results: IP Address, location history, and recent locations searched (Google, Inc). Therefore, Google will still try to find your current location and determine search results, even after being denied access to specific GPS (Global Positioning System) location. For example, searching for ‘finance’ in a place such as New York City, NY, will return results showing brokerage and investments firms. From first glance and based on geographic location this makes sense. New York City is one of the top financial geographic areas in the world. If I search for finance in a different geographic location like San Bernardino, CA, then Google will generate different results. The search query will then return web pages for financial help, such as bankruptcy.

According to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative principles, Google’s practices are not ethically sound and do not follow the ethical code. Kant’s categorical imperatives capture the essence of morality, stating that unless the principle can be universalized, it is immoral (Bowie 57). Therefore, we confront Google geographic search results practices by comparing the results for different geographic location. In this case, Google is acting immorally by showing different results to two different users based on their geographic location. If Google were to follow Kant’s principles, they should be able to show investment results to people in San Bernardino, just as they should be able to show financial help websites to people in New York City. Google’s practices of user discrimination based on his or hers location are unethical. From personal experience, I lived in San Bernardino for one year and I am an investor. Based on Google’s location practices, this is unjust to me not to show me investment results via its search engine. Google is not providing me with the tools and investment opportunities as with someone who lives in New York City. I can then conclude that I will not have the same resources to make the best investment decisions. On a larger scale, this is a more serious problem. If Google doesn’t show investment websites and solutions to people in San Bernardino, those people cannot easily learn about investment or make good economical decisions for themselves or their families. This creates the never ending circle and plays a role in the classic presumption that poor people will always live among the poor and rich people will live among the rich. Google is a tool contributing to this dilemma.

On the contrary, Stuart Mills argues the opposite with utilitarianism and its core principles of the greater good for the greatest number of people. “Utilitarianism is outcome-oriented; its goal is to bring about the greatest happiness” (Gustafson 79). In continuation with using the example of New York City and San Bernardino, we can see that Google is attempting to please everyone. No matter where they reside. Whether someone lives in Krakow, Poland or Sydney, Australia, Google utilizes stored information as well as geographic location of individuals to help them find answers they are looking for; in turn, this will maximize global user utility. Therefore, it is important and some can say vital for Google to have information about its users. Google can now generate informed and fairly accurate results that will serve users best. It is clear that Google attempts to bring utility to as many people as possible. Google’s objective is to satisfy people’s individual search needs. Jeremy Bentham, in contrast to Kant, argues, “This utilitarian principle is simply that the right thing to do is to do whatever brings the most please to the most people” (Gustafson 79). Therefore, Google is paralleled to utilitarian principles: attempting to bring happiness to the greatest number of people, and it requires an advanced algorithmic system to maximize this utility for 7.2 billion individuals. In the case of Google, Mills brings a good challenge to Kant’s categorical imperatives, providing adjusted searches and geographic location based results, which will benefit everyone. If Google wouldn’t follow utilitarian principles and showed everyone the same results, not as many people would be satisfied or happy. This is because it might serve them best based on their location, situation or environment, which Google accounts for when they perform a search query. An example of utilitarianism, contradicting Kant’s categorical imperatives: Imagine you are exploring a city, far from home and a dental emergency arises. It wouldn’t be practical for Google to show you every dental office in the country or the world. In this case, it makes perfect sense for Google to find your location and show results for the nearest dental office. It would be difficult and painful if you had to search through a global list of results. An old yellow page book is a good analog example of a global list, everyone gets the same thing. As oppose to Google’s new algorithm, which is very targeted towards specific environments and situations.

I believe that Google does the correct thing from the utilitarian perspective. Everyone has different wants, needs, and desires. Google does its best to understand them and provide solutions for users as individuals, based on their individual needs, while attempting to please as many people as possible. Personally, I want access to the right information at the right time. In today’s world and with a new generation of tech-savvy individuals, everyone wants information now. Nobody wants to spend any time searching, they want to look at their phone and get exactly what they want when they need it, which is why Google is such a profitable organization. They satisfy consumer needs and give users what they want. Moreover, in Q3 of 2015 Google revenue resulted to 18.7 billion and net income of 3.97 billion (Dipane). With this fiscal capital, they can employee the most creative, innovative, and forward thinking minds. Leading to Google’s extremely secure system. The web browser provides several security-related configurable options. These include remembering form data and passwords; accepting cookies; displaying security warnings; loading images; enabling JavaScript; blocking pop-ups (Shabtai). Great security then evokes the act of trust with customers. I fully trust Google with my information and know that my personal and private information is secure. I don’t believe that Kant’s categorical imperatives make much sense in Google’s case, because having a global list that everyone will see, no matter who they are or where they are, does not seem effective. Users would have a very difficult time finding the correct content for them. This would also be very time consuming for most users, as they would spend time looking through all results. Another component to geographic results, which I personally find extremely beneficial to myself based on my exploratory lifestyle is discovery: when exploring a new city, I don’t have time to explore the entire area manually. Google’s location results will provide me with a list of results near me, which I am attracted to based on my preferences and previous search history. I can now better allocate my time during my trip. Because of my exploratory nature, Google will also introduce me to places I never knew about, which presents me with new opportunities and possibly find new places I didn’t know about before. This practice will also advertise and empower local businesses.

Google practice the separation of results based on geographic location, because this is the demand from users which fuels Google’s profit motive. Google’s objective is to generate clicks, which in return create revenue. Google’s number one priority is to satisfy shareholder needs, which is to generate profits. Therefore, it is in their best interest to generate as much profits as possible. Again, pointing back to Kant’s philosophies: “Truly moral actions cannot be contaminated by motives of self-interest” (Bowie 65). Bowie further explains that even the best actions of the best corporations, such as Google, are not truly moral because of the profit objective. Therefore, if Google was unable to produce profits, it would not be able to operate. Many corporations, including Google, tend to focus their efforts on the bottom line. Kantian philosophy contradicts these principles, stating that profits can be enhanced if we do not focus exclusively on the bottom line (Bowie 66). A great example is the case study of Merck & Co., Inc. choosing to produce a drug that would help people in poor countries with river blindness disease. These victims had limited ability to pay even a small amount of drugs or treatment (Donaldson 254). Merck & Co., Inc. knowing that production of the medication to treat river blindness would not return profits decided to produce anyways for the greater good of people. These actions followed the principles of Immanuel Kant, the duty to do the right thing and prioritize the good of others. Most organizations place profits over the well being of people because it is a primal instinct to survive and over time a symptom of greed. At the end of the day, their decision is profit driven, not people driven.

“I just want to point out that utilitarianism shares with Kant that special appeal to anal compulsives in its doting over principles and rationalization and its neglect of individual responsibility” (Solomon 69). Organizations are made up of people that have the necessity for their individual well being. “Each of us is ultimately lonely. In the end, it’s up to each of us and each of us alone to figure out who we are and who we are not, and to act more or less consistently on those conclusions” (Solomon 66). Aristotle’s principles are based on individualism, everyone looking out for themselves. In the case of Google as one entity, individualism falls parallel with their current practices of self interest. If Google was unable to produce profits, then it would not operate or provide service to its users. Therefore, making profits the primary goal for existence is acceptable under Aristotle’s principles and virtue theory. Understandably, if Google has no funds to operate then it cannot help its users find appropriate information. This theory of individualism states that we should bring out the best in ourselves and our enterprise. Therefore, by bringing out the best in ourselves it will bring out the best in the organization, benefiting users and shareholders. How does this affect users and location based search results? It is to Google’s benefit to show the most relevant results to the users based on their context and location. For example, if the user is in Hollywood, California, possible results might be: Hollywood Walk of Fame, Chinese Theater, Hollywood Sign, Hollywood Wax Museum, etc. Therefore, because these are nearby attractions, it is beneficial for Google to display these results for people in this area. In turn, these clicks will return profits for Google through click advertisements. This action will benefit all parties involved. It benefits customers by having many nearby attraction options and related results based on their search query and Google, by generating advertisement revenue from the advertisement click. All the individual contributors of Google, each have a unique skill set to make robust and secure product. Most importantly to Google, the shareholders who are the owners of the company and gain from the profits.

My belief is in virtue theory and the quest for one to do the best for oneself. In its basic and raw form at the end of the day, when we look in the mirror or in our final hour of life we only have ourselves. Our own being is an absolute, no matter what we do as individuals or collective, we will always have ourselves, this is guaranteed. Therefore, we should pursue our own goals, aspirations and happiness. Perusing the goals of the collective does not guarantee the success and happiness of ourselves. On the contrary, if we pursue our own goals and ambitions then we’re guaranteed happiness with the success of obtaining it, because they are ours, they belong to us. All parties pursuing their own interest at their greatest potential will in turn benefit everyone else, as the concept of Adam Smith’s invisible hand states. The guidance and benefit society receives when individuals act in their own self-interest when trying to make money (Smith 349). Meaning that if Google pursuit its own interest, for example making geographic results as robust as possible, then that will provide the best results for the users and in turn generate many clicks. Finally, this will then generate profits for Google. Therefore, by Google acting in their self-interest everyone is satisfied, specifically the customers who will have a great experience when performing searches in specific geographic locations. Google pursuing their self-interest will create value for the customers, who at the time of their search are also interested in their best self-interest based on the specific circumstances. As humans, our primal instincts are in our self interest.

In the ever changing world of technology, Google as well as other organizations will face difficult ethical dilemmas. In the future of big data and understanding user’s behavior will only continue to grow, it is something that will not be going away any time soon. This brings us to our concern of informing users of what is being geographically collected, tracked and search results presented. As more and more corporations continue to gather our personal information, the question we must ask ourselves is: who can be trusted? The prospects for digital and geographic location privatization is looking dim, with more and more technology companies entering the world of geographic information systems.

In this paper, I’ve reviewed who Google is and their role in the always changing technology and geolocation industry, then assessed Google’s methods for collection information and data in order to provide users with the best results based on environment and context. Next, I analyzed Google’s geographic search results from the perspective of Immanuel Kant, Stuart Mills and my personal position. Furthermore, I evaluated Google’s operating methods of profit driven vs. user driven, and applied concepts of Aristotle’s virtue theory and Kant’s theory. Finally, I quickly reviewed the future of data collection and the unavoidable usage of the internet and privacy concerns. Google is a vastly robust and powered organization, and has established trust within its community of users to provide the best service possible.


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Originally published at The Business of Design.