If you have a question, like, How long is the Mississippi? Google might be your first stop. But, of course, Google is a lot more than just a search engine. Google is constantly adding new products, like the Person Finder, an online message board service that's helping people find loved ones in the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami. In terms of its overall impact on the world, the company doesn’t exactly set a low bar for itself.
"Google's a very ambitious company. It has a vision for its effect on the world...It's explicit corporate mission statement is to organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable," says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
Vaidhyanathan is the author of a new book, The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry.
"Now, when Google does something that appears egalitarian, we always have to remember that Google has a vested interest in keeping people in the Google universe. Every minute you spend with Google makes Google smarter and helps Google sell you to advertisers," he says.
This is also true, Vaidhyanathan says, of the Google Books project. In 2004 the company announced that it had been scanning books at major university libraries and that some of the books were still covered by copyright. Google's argument was that they weren't violating copyright law, and that readers would only see snippets of protected material.
"[But] Google was certainly using all of that text to improve its search functions in complicated ways," he says.
Meaning, the more books it scanned, the better its web searches. The publishers sued. Four years later, they reached a settlement: Google would be immune to claims of copyright infringement for books already scanned, and the company would set up an online bookstore.
"Explicitly created to generate revenue -– to sell books," Vaidhyanathan says. "The revenue would be split between Google and the copyright holders. So this settlement essentially rewrote copyright law in a pretty substantial way. And, you know, you really don't want to do a major change to American law and policy through a class-action settlement."
Last week, a U.S. District Court agreed. It struck down the settlement, saying this matter was probably something that Congress should decide. Vaidhyanathan believes what's happening with Google Books is instructive. He says we often celebrate what Google lets us do, without really thinking about what it requires of us.
"We are Google's worker bees. Every click we make engaging with a Google page, every Gmail we send, ultimately improves its bottom line. Not that there's anything wrong with that," he says, "but let's just keep a sense of the complete transaction and not just be grateful that this big, rich company in the clouds is supplying us with fabulous gifts for nothing."