Google is building a Fiber Backbone in order to take over the world (we’re not sure how that works, but you should be worried). Google is digitizing libraries violating copyright! Google is spying on your email! Your email, man! Your private email! Google is watching every click you make! Google is in league with China! Google is building a free, ad-powered wireless network to spy on good people everywhere! Good God! Look Out Geek: Google Power Gonna Get Yer Mama! 
This is the post promised by a previous entry about Google and AT&T peering. It seems that no matter what Google does, they catch endless raftloads of criticism from the masses (and pundits) about the nature of each project and its nefarious implications. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with individuals being concerned about the way in which multi-billion-dollar corporations treat them. It’s healthy and part of a competitive, free society. But the knee-jerk reactions to Google’s every move stray beyond the normal, rational vigilance. So whence the Googanoia? Where does the fear come from?
The short answer is:
I’ll cover these key factors in the genesis of Googanoia. (I wrote this entire blog entry just so I would get the chance to write that phrase: ‘Genesis of Googanoia’).
We are naturally afraid of those that are more powerful than us, those that could crush us like bugs (not that Google would crush anyone—they are not evil, of course). When the desktop was king and Microsoft owned it, there was much more concern about them than there is today. Few people seriously refer to our friends in Redmond as “the evil empire” anymore. This isn’t because Microsoft is a radically different company than they were five years ago. They are not. They are still a fiercely competitive company determined to crush anyone who gets in their way. The difference is that no one seriously believes they will succeed at world domination in the Internet sphere where the platform is everything and the desktop is really just an access device. Microsoft is powerful on the Internet, but they are not the dominant monopoly.
Neither is Google, yet. But Google is rapidly becoming the company that owns that Internet-based platform that mediates our Internet access. They are large, very capable, growing extremely quickly and all of that makes people nervous.
In the beginning, Google’s applications worked well—surprisingly well. Their search page loaded faster than anyone else’s clogged “portal”. Pagerank worked, harnessing the power of the Internet mind to rank results. The ads were simple, and targeted, proving that users would accept advertising if it were not annoying. And so, the money flowed.
No one is afraid of a massive, incompetent organization. It’s the extremely competent ones that people worry about. Luckily for those suffering from Googanoia, Google has put forth a bunch of major flops recently, and even their successes have been half-hearted. For example, Google maps, their biggest success, is largely a commercial flop, with fewer than half as many visitors as market leader Mapquest. Gmail, as much as it is adored by the geek community, is also a market flop—Yahoo mail added more users last quarter than gmail has in total. And let’s not even talk about Orkut, the social network for Brazilians, or Froogle, the most incompetent shopping search engine deployed.
All of these things should give us comfort. Google is not all-powerful, they are not all-knowing, they are not invincible. They are very, very smart and usually quite good at what they do, but they are not perfect.
But at the heart of the issue is the culture of secrecy at Google. Google is one of the most secretive commercial organizations ever known to humankind. The secrecy is motivated by a deep fear, generated during Google’s early startup days, that Yahoo or Microsoft or AOL would crush them just by out spending them. The logic goes something like this: Google does smart things; really, really clever things. Someone like Microsoft was, in Google’s eyes, just not as clever. But Microsoft is huge and wealthy as all get out. If Microsoft knew with reasonable certainty just how hard a problem Google was solving, they could easily afford to spend 2x or 3x or 5x as much money to solve the same problem less cleverly.
Google’s main defenses then became secrecy combined with active deception. The secrecy part is obvious: don’t tell anyone else what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. The only thing most people knew for certain about Google in the early days was that it was a search engine and it was really fast, really complete and pretty accurate. The deception part was simple as well: mislead and misdirect others into mis-estimating how hard the problems are. Google has a habit of misdirecting questioners on simple things like query volume, number of servers, number of datacenters, total bandwidth and the like. Their theory was that if someone like Microsoft could not know with reasonable certainty how much Google was spending on various aspects of their operation, it would reduce the certainty with which Microsoft could try to crush them. It worked, more or less. It’s also mostly an obsolete strategy, given that Google is a public company now and the amount of information reported is vastly increased. It’s also obsolete given how many of google’s new technologies show up in applications that are endlessly in beta. The culture of secrecy remains, however and is one of the big reasons that people distrust Google.
This is why the general public freaked about about gmail. Google came out with an innovative, interesting and very, very late entry to the webmail market. Its main features of interest were a significant increase in storage available to the users, a fast and responsive user interface that worked on almost all browsers in a standards-based fashion and the presence of context-sensitive ads. It was this last one that really worried people. Google delivered ads to people based on the text of the email that they were reading. Google clearly disclosed that they would archive the text of emails and put them through automatic systems to determine ads that would be of interest to someone who received email with those words. Anyone who didn’t like this was free to simply not get a free, ad-supported email account at Google. Instead, people freaked out. They screamed that Google was “reading their mail”. This is a classic case of Googanoia driven not by what Google was actually doing, but by a fear and distrust motivated by the three factors above.
As Google becomes more mainstream and provides services (other than search and advertising) beyond the geek elite Googanoia will spread. At the same time, the very act of providing those services more broadly will tend to dampen the fear, simply by virtue of increasing familiarity on the part of the general public and openness on the part of Google. Until then, though Googanoia reigns. And frankly, like all conspiracy theories, it’s entertaining enough to be worth it.