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Google’s one-way mirror: a business model for privacy invasion and abuse by Daniël Verhoeven [Google Watch series, episode 02]

Permalink Author: Daniël Verhoeven

The main Google paradox

One way to define contextual information search would be intelligent search. In this article we explore one of the origins of human intelligence: mirror neurons. As to prominent linguists like Arbib  and Lakoff mirror neurons explain the adaptive evolution of the human language faculty and the development of conceptual knowledge (Arbib, 2005; Gallese, Lakoff, 2007). The problem is our easy and accepting relationship with Google. We are geesing at Google and engage with it more and more every day, uncritically unthinkingly.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is concerned about the fact that:

“….we do not properly understand the nature of the nature of the transaction between us and Google. …into our relationship with Google we do not grasp that we are not really Google’s costumers. Google calls us users, but in fact we are Google’s products. Our attention is what Google sells to its customers, which are the advertisers.” (BBC interview)

The thesis I want to develop here and in the articles to come is that by using Google we stop developing our conceptual knowledge. Googling is not an intelligent information search strategy. But we are always communicating something. In using Google we express our intentions and the cleverness of Google is to incorporate our intentions in its advertising system and giving us the feel we are finding what we are looking for, but  for all this is what Google wants us to look at. One of the things that intrigues me why Google does not disclose to its users their personal user profile, though it shares it with third parties:

  • We may use personal information to provide the services you’ve requested, including services that display customized content and advertising.
  • We may also use personal information for auditing, research and analysis to operate and improve Google technologies and services.
  • We may share aggregated non-personal information with third parties outside of Google.
  • When we use third parties to assist us in processing your personal information, we require that they comply with our Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.
  • We may also share information with third parties in limited circumstances, including when complying with legal process, preventing fraud or imminent harm, and ensuring the security of our network and services.
  • Google processes personal information on our servers in the United States of America and in other countries. In some cases, we process personal information on a server outside your own country.” ((

The stunning paradox is that Google says that it wants to use our personal data for “research and analysis to operate and improve Google technologies and services”, but is far to slow in improving search technologies. What about improvement? Google only recently (24 March 2009) implemented “a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search” as to ‘The Official Google Blog’. It was about time Google implemented this because this feature was implemented earlier in the search results of Google’s main competitors. Ask displays ‘Related Searches’ next to the page results and formulates additional relates Questions and Answers about the topic. Cuil lets you explore answers by category and subcategory. Ask and Cuil didn’t only offer associations and concepts earlier they offer more than Google does. Yahoo’s  versions of concepts is comparable with the one of Google, only it was implemented much earlier. and Wikia Search doesn’t only offer conceptual associations it is also letting the user add suggestions interactively. So it looks rather like Google felt the heat from its competitors than it implemented a novel improvement. (see Search Engine History);

Is Google stupid or does it thing we are stupid? I’m afraid the latter is the case. Google has collected the best research brains and is funding top research at universities worldwide but the use of this knowledge conflicts with its business model. If a Google search would deliver only relevant results, it would reduce the opportunities to show pay-per-click advertisements. These ads are the main income of Google.

About Mirror neurons

Mirror Neurons were discovered in 1994 in the macaque brain by Galese and Rizzolatti. What do Mirror Neurons do? They mirror observed actions:

“The observation of an object-related hand action leads to the activation of the same neural network active during its actual execution. Action observation causes in the observer the automatic activation of the same neural mechanism triggered by action execution.” (Galese, 2005).

In the years that follow, Galese and others (also called the Parma Group because they all work at the university of Parma in Italy) explore the Mirror Neuron system. The Mirror Neuron system is also demonstrated in the human brain. What is special about this is that the neural system for action execution is triggered but the execution of the action is inhibited. It’s not mere a system that is mirroring action it also performs simulations. When a given action is planned, its expected motor consequences are forecast. This means that when we are going to execute a given action we can also predict its consequences. The action model enables this prediction. Since the Mirror Neurons uses the same neuronal circuits this mechanism allows us also to predict actions of others.

“The same functional logic that presides over self-modelling is employed also to model the behaviour of others: to perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it. This enables the observer to use her/his own resources to experientially penetrate the world of the other by means of a direct, automatic, and unconscious process of simulation.” (Galese, 2005)

This ‘process of simulation’ of the action of others takes place regardless of the fact we are in direct communication with them. In a way our brain is communicating with the persons we observe before we even exchanged a word. Iacobini compared the action of Mirror Neurons when observing intentional and not intentional behaviour. He concluded that the reaction pattern of the Mirror Neurons is different when the actions observed were intentional. Mirror Neurons are only activated when the action is meaningful to the observer, the system cannot be deceived:

“-areas active during the execution and the observation of an action-previously thought to be involved only in action recognition are actually also involved in understanding the intentions of others. To ascribe an intention is to infer a forthcoming new goal, and this is an operation that the motor system does automatically.” (Iocobioni, 2005)

The system of Mirror Neurons also works with emotions as to Galese:

“We recently published an fMRI study showing that experiencing disgust and witnessing the same emotion expressed by the facial mimicry of someone else, both activate the same neural structure – the anterior insula – at the same overlapping location (Wicker et al. 2003). This suggests, at least for the emotion of disgust, that the first- and third-person experiences of a given emotion are underpinned by the activity of a shared neural substrate.” (Galese, 2004)

These results provide a neurological basis for pragmatic linguistics, saying that we understand each other in grasping the intentions of our collocutor. This is not to say that Mirror Neurons are the only mechanism through which we understand the intentions of others, analysis of the perceived action and connecting it to the context and some theory we have in mind play a role as well (Rizzolatti and Craigheiro, 2005, p. 108-109). Rizzolatti and Craigheiro also wondered if mirror neurons are also the basis for altruism.

“Can we deduce from this that the mirror mechanism is the mechanism from which altruistic behavior evolved? This is obviously a very hard question to answer. Yet, it is very plausible that the mirror mechanism played a fundamental role in the evolution of altruism. The mirror mechanism transforms what others do and feel in the observer’s own experience. The disappearance of unhappiness in others means the disappearance of unhappiness in us and, conversely, the observation of happiness in others provides a similar feeling in ourselves. Thus, acting to render others happy – an altruistic behavior – is transformed into an egoistic behavior – we are happy.” (Rizzolatti and Craigheiro, 2005, p. 116-120)

Our brains appear to have developed a basic functional mechanism, called ‘embodied simulation’ by Galese, which gives us an experiential insight of other minds. The hypothesis of the ‘embodied mind’ has gained more and more proof in recent neurological research. This let’s us also tune up with others, this is what we call empathy. The theory (well let’s not forget it is based on a mass of empirical research) of Mirror Neurons states that we are continually in a process of mirroring the behaviour of the people we live with and deduct from these neuronal mirror actions the intentions of the others. The system of Mirror Neurons thus has a double functionality: It let’s us grasp the intentions of our collocutor and it creates empathy for him. More research points in the same direction. The work of Tania Singer and Ernst Fehr in Zurich linking neurological research on empathy to micro-economics (altruistic punishment) was one of the first to give a push to several interdisciplinary studies where neurology is used to shed light on human communication and exchange. Neuro-economics and Neuro-sociology are research fields that are developing fast today. Mirror neurons are one of the basic systems for the human communication. They are also involved in Computer Mediated Communication, you cannot switch them off. Or as communication theorist Watzlawick did put it: “You cannot not communicate


Google’s one-way mirror

Google is a one-way mirror, meaning you cannot look back. Besides Google is still a lousy search engine. Vint Cerf, Googles evangelist even admits that Google is rather a big shovel:

“Look search today is messy. Think about one of those big construction shovels, you know, like a tractor with a big shovel on the front. And you have to operate it by pulling and pushing a series of levers. It’s big and imprecise. Using a search engine today feels like trying to move one of these Earth-moving shovels.” (Interview with Vint Cerf of Google, 13 August 2008, Siva Vaidhyanathan)

But it is for all a money shovel:

“The real brilliance of Google is the ability to monetize search through AdSense. This company uncovered the relationship between advertising and information. The old way of advertising had no direct interaction with the audience. But now the audience can click.” (same interview)

The primary view of Google is behaviourist and system centred. The following oracle of Vincent Cerf’s is clear:

“There are things that computers can do that six billion humans can’t do. Computers have the scale capacity to discover and analyze things,” (same interview)


This a quite humiliating claim for human kind in my opinion. Recently bionics made important progress by realising a bionic eye. But we must also consider the relativity of this realisation. Our retina contains 126 million sensitive cells, the bionic interface consisted out of only 60 electrodes. One estimate puts the human brain at about 100 billion (10^11) neurons and 100 trillion (10^14) synapses. Each neuron can be considered as a small biological computer on its own. Google’s cloud computers is compared with the human brain merely a fart. Google is expanding because that’s the only way to stay on top since it misses evolutionary constraints. It will only reproduce its own model. Google’s chief evangelist Vincent Cerf is looking for answers in the InterPlaNetary Internet. I’m afraid he isn’t going to find them. Google will expand until it bursts. Google’s search system is a black box, all we know about it are the published patents, but the search algorithms used aren’t part of them. Wiki Search acknowledges the demand for openness as you can read on the about Page


“For hundreds of years, the most respected institutions have treated transparency as a requirement. Those who, of their own accord, promise openness find that with this pledge comes credibility, as, in the words of the late Justice Louis Brandeis of the United States Supreme Court, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Indeed, those who avoid the light of scrutiny and instead opt for obfuscation are often assumed to be hiding something, and for good reason.”

David Koepsell pleads for a new paradigm in scientific research based on the Wiki model:

“In idealized science, the search for the laws of nature and explanations of phenomena is collaborative and ongoing, and does not become fixed in a final text, but is always subject to revision and refinement in the face of new evidence. The wiki model is the natural extension of the initial model of science employed in the early salons and meetings of the first scientific societies, before publishing overtook the processes employed by natural philosophers as the be-all and end-all of science itself.” (David Koepsell, Back to Basics: How Technology and the Open Source Movement Can Save Science)

Also Tim Bernbers-Lee (unplugged) stressed the need for open WEB standards and its use in data queries as you can see in this video of 2007.

A business model for Privacy Invasion

I have no clue what techniques Google is using for its contextual ads, I guess one is latent semantic analysis. My experience before was that Google adapts its answers based on my previous search behaviour. Google stores that information and is quite hypocrite about it. After several protests Google promised to delete this logged information after 9 months, but it only anonymizes IP addresses on its server logs. Google recently confirmed my suspicion when launching a detailed behavorial add program


“The most privacy protective solution would be to have behavioral targeting systems be based on the user’s opt-in. To no one’s surprise, Google has not gone down that road (“‘Offering advertising on an opt-in basis goes against the economic model of the Internet,’ Google spokesperson Christine Chen told the IDG News Service“), and we are not aware of any major player in online advertising that has an opt-in targeting system. Google has, however, done some things that make opt-out quite a bit better.” (EFF)

googlecamera Google defines and re-shapes the economic model of Internet[1]. What’s more, Google’s contextual voyeurism entails a privacy invading culture snooping and spying the Net while we tend to consider the Net as an information source. Google contextual ads business model has many followers. See for some recent examples: Deep Packet Inspection, Advance Interactive Media using questionnaire as a manipulating marketing technique, video screens with built in tracking systems and you can find other examples using this Activity Monitoring Software. ‘Contextual advertising’ is typical Orwellian newspeak. Why not call it what it is: “unsolicited advertising” like “unsolicited mail”: SPAM. As pod casters, broadcasters, bloggers, site builders, in one word: content providers we leave our traces on the Net. While the Net is a huge space to seek an audience, big players, telecom providers and service providers, want to use the Net primarily to make money, annihilating human presence, turning and degrading communication into bits and bytes, into usable code for profit making. Google’s net neutrality is circumstantial as we showed in a previous article. A free meal is never entirely free. Most people are not aware of that evidence. This is the shadow side of Web 2.0. See also In Your Face: Recession and The Rise of the Anti-Social Web, about the risk that service providers like Google and Facebook will try to make profit with usercontent when they run into financial problems, something that is rather likely to happen today. We should become aware of the reshaping of our communication practices using the Net. Why not make part of its infrastructure public or social owned. After all, Internet was developed in the public domain. If not, there would be no Internet, I’m afraid. Google is using our data, why do we have nothing to say about the way it does? Because Christine Chen said so? Because Google wants it this way? One of the reasons is simple: a lot of content-providers do not understand Google’s trap. They participate in the page-ranking competition and join the page-ranking manipulation business. This allows Google to say that keywords aren’t relevant any longer when describing documents.

“Next we have two name values: keywords, which these days is mostly useless, ironically, and description, which is still somewhat useful.” (Google Code Home, Metadata,

Google has come under fire for allowing AdWords advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords. In 2004, Google started allowing advertisers to bid on a wide variety of search terms in the US and Canada, including the trademarks of their competitors. See Stefanie Olsen, Google plans trademark gambit, .CNET. Danny Sullivan proposed that Google should open it’s search index for researchers and for its compettitors to research, because since Google has he largest search index it has an advantage his competitors cannot coop with. But Google won’t do that. On Google’s closeness he remarks in “Google: As Open As It Wants To Be (i.e. When It’s Convenient)“;”

“There’s probably no deeper example of Google being closed than when it comes to book search. Google’s efforts to scan books are well known at this point. But Google keeps coming under fire for agreements said to restrict those scans for being used by its competitors. (…) To be fair, Microsoft has also added similar restrictions. But if Google’s on an “open” kick, why not join the Open Content Alliance?” (…) AdSense isn’t an “open” marketplace where publishers set prices and see how much advertisers are willing to pay, with Google taking a known and set percentage. Google will take whatever it wants, and publishers are left guessing. So much for open.

References: Gallese, Vittorio, 2004, Intentional Attunement. The Mirror Neuron system and its role in interpersonal relations, paper published at ‘Interdisciplines’, online Gallese, Vittorio, 2005, Intentional Attunement. The Mirror Neuron system and its role in interpersonal relations, paper published at ‘Interdisciplines’, consulted online on 15/03/2008 at Rizzolatti,Giacomo, Craighero, laila, 2005, Mirror neuron: a neurological approach to empathy, Neurobiology of Human Values, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2005, online

[1] After pressure of the Electrtonic Frontier Foundation, Google has dekivered an opt-out option for the behavioural ad system.

Additional Resources

Neuroscience Broken Mirrors, A Theory Of Autism Neuroeconomics of Mind Reading and Empathy Psychologists shed light on origins of morality Nikolas Rose, Neurosociology, and Neurochemical Selves What Is The Value of Neuroscience? Privacy New privacy policy, cooperation with law enforcement & your data: An interview with Google A Race to the Bottom – Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies Proximic Signs Deals With Yahoo and eBay To Turn Product Listings Into Contextual Ads; Taking on AdSense When you watch these ads, the ads check you out Orwell’s 1984 revisited: Uberveillance Google Big Brother? Eyetracking en Latitude Jacht op je privéleven geopend by Karin Spaink Een Leven In Flarden Debunking Google’s log anonymization propaganda Zoekmachines en uw Privacy Omstreden databewaringsrichtlijn niet vernietigd Hi-Tech Spousal Abuse – Technology Perverted

More articles about Google Watch More articles about Privacy More articles about the Social Web More articles about Uberveillance More articles about Web 2.0 Links to Wikipedia: Open Society, Closed Society, Advertising, Surveillance, Uberveillance, World Wide Web


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Dit bericht was geplaatst op 18/03/2009 door in Privacy en getagd als .

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