Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Are you a citizen of Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Google or Facebook? Blurring governments and companies

Many people consider Google as a search engine, or maybe as a search and email system, with a few extra frills like maps.

However with over 1 billion searches a day, Google is not only aggregating the world's knowledge, it is learning about the world's citizens, what interests them, how they think and feel - even how well they are. It is now becoming possible to track the spread of diseases via Google searches with a high degree of accuracy, or model political sentiment.

These techniques are still in their infancy, however over time Google is building mental maps for billions of the world's citizens. The company is hiring the best and brightest engineers, mathematicians and psychologists in the world in order to make more sense of this data and improve their predictions - apparently to help improve the targeting of advertisements.

Google is also a more complex entity than it first appears in the clean Google search interface. The company is involved in a vast array of businesses connected to how the internet operates, is powered and the services delivered across it, such as power generation, broadband networks, connection devices and operation systems, electronic healthcare and biotechnology. In many respects the company is heading towards becoming a global operating system for the planet.

Alongside Google is Facebook - the world's leading social networking site. However rather than just being a place to chat with your friends online and share photos, Facebook has much grander ambitions.

Facebook now has almost 500 million active users - more than half accessing it daily. The service's users spend more time engaging with and through the service than they spend engaging with their national and state governments.

Facebook's advertising engine learns every time a user interacts with the service and even learns about people who do not have accounts by how they are mentioned in photos, videos and updates by users. This makes it a tool for achieving the same depth of audience understanding as Google is developing through its search and other services.

Last week Facebook and Microsoft launched a partnership which will allow Facebook users to create, edit, share and collaborate on documents via Microsoft's new web-based Office back end. The site is This isn't the traditional tool you find in a social network and could herald Facebook's entry into business life.

Also last week Facebook launched the Open Graph initiative that could see them embedding roots into many - if not most - websites, by enabling people to embed Facebook 'Like' buttons which connect back to their Facebook profiles. More than simply being a way to share your sentiment with friends, these buttons allow Facebook to know when you visit every site with a Like button, what you do and how long you spend there. Like a benevolent strangler vine, Facebook will suck knowledge about its users (including around 40% of Australians) out of potentially millions of websites in the most comprehensive data collection and reuse scheme in history - again apparently focused on ad sales.

In the past companies with this level of influence and control over a geographical territory amassed enormous political power. In some cases they effectively became the government in some areas of the world. The British East India Company springs to mind, which governed much of India for 100 years.

As the world becomes reliant on the internet as the global nervous system, where the territory is owned by companies rather than nations, I wonder whether we will see a similar situation with the potential for companies becoming governments - all but in name.

At some point will people consider themselves citizens of Google or Facebook rather than Australia, New Zealand or Great Britain?

Maybe some already do.

Below is an excellent video by the ABC's Hungry Beast that provides more information about what's under the hood at Google, and speculates about what the company could become.

No comments:

Post a Comment