It’s fun watching the right people having fun… nothing else explains the allure of the Kennedys, Donald Trump, and the real Housewives. In the tech world we get to enjoy the playful antics of Google. This week we saw the launch of a new virtual Middle Earth on Google Maps, a Dr. Who Themed Google Doodle, plans for Google Glass at prescription strength, and some whacky winter oriented nonsense called Winter Wonder Lab. Ultimately all the wealth, power and fun tracks back to one thing… knowledge. Google has become the way we navigate the Internet… which is great if you live in a country like the US. In places like China, where the Government attempts to stop folk from finding out things they’d rather you not know about, things are different. Although you can still get to Google, there are many sites that you can’t get to via Google since they are blocked by the Evil Lords of China and their Political Nazgul.
The sad and somewhat Ironic fact is that for much less than the effort and cost Google employed on their adorable virtual Middle Earth (in commercial cooperation with the latest Hobbit movie of course), Google could set the information-oppressed people of China (and other evil empires) free. The task is laughably simple, all Google would need do is make Google china (like Google US) encrypted by switching to https rather than http. That would make the task of blocking encrypted results essentially impossible. It wouldn’t stop the Chinese from blocking sites, but since Google knows which sites are blocked, and any cached version of the site stored elsewhere, all they would need to do is redirect a visitor to the cached unblocked version via their results set.
Were Google to actually take on the dark lords like this, it would no doubt casue a furroro in many places. There would be protests and counter measures. However trying to oppose the growth of the Internet, and Google, is pointless. They are just too huge to fight. What’s the worse could happen… Google would be seen as a crusader for freedom (nice change)? After a few news cycles, the new norm would be established and there would be several more cracks in mount doom.
Back in the day.. .by which I mean about a decade ago (when I used to work a tone of the big search engines), we were approached by a Middle Eastern Country to come up with a web search engine which could be controlled so that content from specific sites on the web could be excluded and specific queries and queries about specific topics would return no results.
At the time, the consensus from our engineering team was that it was mostly pretty doable. The problem we had was that the customer wanted very strong guarantees that we’d stop everything, and back then we couldn’t guarantee that we would never show content on specific topics if that content was found indirectly. It had a pretty high “ick” factor too, so we passed on the opportunity.
It was thus with a feeling of being somewhat underwhelmed by recent announcements from Google and Bing that they would be implementing filters for the 13,000 plus queries which have been shown to link back to child pornography or pedophilia related sites. The announcement has been greeted with limited ballyhoo… but positive ballyhoo nonetheless. The fact really not commented on is that this is something they have had the engineering ability to do for at-least the last decade. No doubt the efficiency of the process has improved over the years, but there was absolutely nothing stopping them doing something very similar a long time ago.
In fairness, both Google and Bing have been responsive in taking down offending content when that content is reported to them… but it’s always been a proactive response. The root of this reticence (as is most things bad) is legal. The Digital Millennium Copyright act (amongst many other things) gave the search engines ‘safe harbor’ against being accused of copyright infringement for indexing content published on the web. A corollary to this argument was that Search Engines would loose this safe harbor if they could be accused of manually “editing” the index. The end result was that search engines (like my old one) steadfastly resisted doing anything other than make algorithmic changes which impact the entire index or only removed URLs when instructed to by a Judge. This thinking has ruled the world of web search ever since.
The recent furor around the issue of kiddie porn and search has been led by the Brits and is gaining traction over here. The changes just announced will likely calm that excitement at a cosmetic level, a couple of news cycles later it will be long forgotten… sadly, the problem won’t be. The folks into this toxic garbage don’t rely on search engines, rather pics are traded like baseball card between like minded “enthusiasts.” These changes might slow down the curious or beginners, but it won’t stop the hardcore… it’s too little and too late.
It’s unlikely that this story will survive more than one news cycle… indeed as we deal with the Philippines Disaster and the latest gun rampage this story may never cross your desk. So it’s with a glad heart that I can declare a win for the good guys today… and weirdly today the good guys are Google.
What feels like a million years ago, but was is in fact only about 8 years; the publishers and Authors associations/guilds (whatever) sued Google over copyright infringement for Google Books. Ironically, the intervening years have established scanned books and all they represent in terms of keeping all our of print books available to more than a few researchers as invaluable to the whole world. Even though the parties to the case reached multiple settlements, the judge insisted that the case go forward and today Judge Chin ruled that the project both respected copyright holders rights and served an enormous public benefit. Finally, a judicial ruling that makes perfect sense.
I won’t bore you with minutiae of the argument, no doubt the losers in this quixotic case will appeal and waste more of their members money flogging a horse, which died about 5 years ago. Meanwhile Google will continue to scan and in many ways rescue books that are out of print, out of copyright, or just plain languishing in the stacks of libraries all over the world. As we move inexorably from a dead tree digital world digitizing the massive corpus of the world’s writing and mobilizing them for humanity to experience is an expensive and reasonably thankless task. If Google weren’t doing this essentially for free, we’d likely have to wait for some governmental body to do that for us… and we know how well that stuff works out. So score one for humanity, and let’s give Google credit where it’s due… this one time.
As an avid Google watcher, I find myself wondering “what’s next” on a pretty regular basis. Driving to Vegas recently, I passed the surreal power plant out in the desert, which focuses the desert heat from thousands of mirrors on to the power housing that drives steam turbines. Someone got ticketed recently for driving whilst impaired… in as much as they were wearing Google Glass, and apparently in our crazy over-regulated world that’s an impairment. A few weeks back Google filed a patent for an approach which allowed someone wearing Google Glass to indicate to “like” something by making the two hands make a heart symbol over the object as seen by Glass. Last week Google filed a patent for what is essentially an electronic (removable) tattoo that would allow users to control their devices by speaking to them. It could also double as a handy dandy lie detector. Clearly Google has plans to allow us to interact at deeper and deeper levels with the Google technology that surrounds us.
If you add in their efforts towards driverless cars, massive and self-sufficient data centers, genome driven disease detection (23 and me), World Wide WiFi and plans to end death, you could be forgiven that they are single-handedly trying to make the life’s work of Isac Asimov become reality in our generation.
If you are a keen Sci-Fi follower you may have come across the debate around advanced civilization and virtual reality. The theory goes that as we explore the universe we find the remains of civilizations but never the actual civilization. It seems worlds get to a level a little more advanced than we are… then vanish. The answer lies in death. The theory goes that as soon as a civilization gets advanced enough, it can store the consciousness in a machine the inhabitants essentially depart this boring old world for a much more entertaining and immortal virtual world stored on massive data centers buried deep beneath the surface.
I have to admit I have a sneaking suspicion for the amazing (but much less glamorous) work that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been doing to eliminate some of the world’s nastiest diseases… as opposed to the cool “Wham Bam Science Man!” innovations much beloved by Google. However, it is fascinating to see what was pure science fiction becoming reality in real time… one crazy Google idea after another.