Google Inc./Alphabet Inc.: Privacy in the Business of Personal Information


Google Inc., now an Alphabet company, is almost 20 years old. It has introduced many innovative products like Search, AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Glass. The company’s spirited approach to information sharing has garnered criticism that it violates personal privacy. On a backdrop of evolving law and policy, Google provides an important example to explore the ethical dimensions of building a successful business from novel technology.

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Appendix: Alphabet Inc./Google Products

As electronic communication has evolved, so has the product portfolio of Google. Figure 1 in the case provides an overview of some of the products Google has introduced over time. Most of these products (below the Alphabet box) remain familiar names. In the new corporate structure introduced in 2015, Alphabet is the holding company for both traditional Google products and a number of research and development-based, higher risk ventures. The dominant traditional Google products are Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android, Chrome, and Maps (see Figure 1), which each have over one billion monthly active users (Alphabet Inc., 2015).

Google considers Search to be the core of the company. The machinery (computer software) behind Search constantly crawls the web, visiting different websites and creating a record of what is on each page and what it links to, and what is linked to it. To mine this information and match it with user searches, Google creates algorithms to interpret what queries mean. Does someone googling ‘fish’ want a grocery store, bait, or an evolutionary tree? User content (information about web browsing history and from sites visited) is one criterion used to decide which results to deliver to an individual user. Google also makes decisions on the quality of a website. Looking into the future of Search, growth in use is expected through enhanced reach globally but technological advancement is likely to come through the use of artificial intelligence (Alphabet Investor Relations, 2016).

Gmail is a web-based email service that is free for users and requires no other membership, subscription or affiliation to join. Differentiating factors of Gmail compared to other email services are unlimited storage capacity (content stored by Google), and users can keep their email account regardless of where they live or work. Ads appear to users of Gmail in a side bar of their inbox, unless switched off.

Arguably, Google Maps is the most imaginative and ambitious Google product. The company has overlaid terrain, street views, roads maps, travel and transit directions, and locations of sites of interest. Although much of this was obtainable by other means, for street views, Google sent vehicles through the streets, capturing images of everything including people, their homes, vehicles and yards.

YouTube, provider of video content online, continues to grow by adding more and more viewers. Content is primarily uploaded by contributors who decide if they will host ads with their content. Contributors come from all walks of life, some want to entertain free of charge, some offer educational or promotional videos, some are commercial, some not-for-profit, some individuals, artists, or large organizations.

Android is an operating system for mobile and touch screen devices. Looking at worldwide market share, phones with an Android operating system hold over 80%, while Apple o/s has about 16% (IDC, 2015). Google considers that the Android operating system provides the opportunity to make a good connection with the mobile users because phones are always on.

Chrome browser competes with Microsoft Explorer, Safari and Firefox. As of May 2016, Chrome had the largest desktop browser market share, followed by Explorer and Firefox (StatCounter, 2016). If mobile is included, Chrome still has the largest chunk of the market, but Safari (Apple) is second.

Google has several other products, such as Google +, Google Play for gaming, and enterprise solutions that include Gmail, Google docs and cloud services. The ‘other’ ventures category at Alphabet includes Google car, Google Glass, medical research, human longevity research, and other projects. While some of the Alphabet ventures seem like a departure from the original mission of organizing and making information accessible, Google Glass fits the strategy as a novel way to provide information while broadening the company’s platform into the area of wearable technology. The first version of Glass was available in 2013 and a second version is anticipated soon. Glass is a computer that looks much like a pair of eye glasses, delivering communication functions (photos and videos, email and texts) like a mobile phone. Information from web searches or other data can appear before the user’s eyes. To control Glass, the wearer either taps the arm of the glasses frame or uses voice commands. Google announced in January 2015 that Glass would no longer be available, as the company needed to move on to a development phase with the product (Google, 2015).

Google’s Project Loon is also a good fit with the company’s mission. In this venture, a fleet of hot air balloons have been engineered to fly above the most remote areas in the world to provide internet connectivity. While Loon has the potential to provide needed connectivity to much of the world’s population, it also has the potential to be a profitable business delivering traditional Google products to even more people.

Nest is a relatively mature venture, acquired by Google in 2014. It began with a thermostat that learns the inhabitant’s routines and preferences for timing and temperatures of heating and cooling, and then controls the furnace and air conditioner in the most energy and cost efficient way. The Nest website declares that this device:

“Knows when you are away… It uses built-in sensors and even your phone.” (Nest, n.d.)

Home security, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are now available. Nest’s business is the Internet of Things where it is anticipated that soon all objects and systems will be monitored and connected through the cloud.

While Alphabet dashes forward into areas of new technology, the core Google products have evolved over the past two decades. General advances such as the introduction of mobile devices, ubiquitous WiFi, GPS tracking, and touch-screen interfaces changed the delivery of Google products. New services, such as cloud-based computing and instant messaging have contributed to product development. Business practices and customer behaviour have been swept along with the tide of new technology. Most organizations have a robust web and social media presence today.

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