Monday, September 8, 2008

Google and corporate espionage

The release of Google's Chrome and the original EULA that was bound to it has opened an interesting debate about how much Google knows about us, and maybe more ominously, how much it knows about your business. I would postulate that Google knows more about your business than you do.

But first, the EULA flap. The old EULA stated: "You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and distribute any Content which you submit, post, or display on or through, the Services."

Clearly, Google didn't mess this up: they are a big company with a good legal team, so we have to assume that this EULA was deliberately written the way it was. Since Google is a conduit for content, while using this content for its own profit without wanting to pay for it, the EULA makes a lot of sense from Google's perspective. Equally clear is that asking for a "...perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify... publish" is simply unbelievably aggressive leading to a revolt that forced Google to rewrite the EULA.

For Google's business model to remain viable, it has to extract customer behavior and owning the browser makes that a million times easier. Secondly, searching for information on the internet is essential to today's business, so Google has both customer behavior and customer knowledge searches. This means that it can deduce purpose and effectively learn what you learn. Finally, collective knowledge of your workforce adds a whole new layer of understanding for Google. For example, say you have decided to plan for a new product. The product research your organization is doing will be localized in time and in scope, thus making it easy to filter out of the backdrop of all other searches that your organization is doing. This means that your new product plans will be visible to Google and its clever group of data mining specialists. Their whole job is to mine for data like this so that the Google service can provide you with contextual information that you could use and thus will generate revenue for Google. Google simply needs to know more about your business than you do to continue to generate revenue.

Google of course is not unique in this respect. Any ad-revenue driven Services will need some spying and semantic inference to yield context to generate revenue. In the consumer space, it appears that people are more willing to part with their preferences in exchange for free access. But the cost for business seems a bit steep, particularly big business, and it comes as a surprise to me that only the media companies have been suing Google. Maybe the Google EULA flap will invigorate the debate on how much data a SaaS or Cloud provider can extract and own and how this needs to be regulated.