New Orleans There’s a bit of dark humor we often engage in when we joke for one reason or another about big tech that “we’re just living in their world.” We’re talking about the ubiquitous conglomerates including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, or Alphabet if you will. In modern daily life and business, we’d almost have to become a hermit in a cave to escape them, and that would only work if it was impossible to get a satellite signal. They are all scary when it comes to privacy and their inability to balance their profit motives against about anything else, including life and death, as we too frequently find in Facebook’s irresponsible handling of abusive comments. Unfortunately, they are not alone, and Alphabet’s YouTube and certainly Twitter have similar issues. Nonetheless, let’s worry about a Google Alert we’re getting from Russia today.
Google Alerts are in fact part of my daily life and have been for years. How else would we be able to keep up with mentions of our organizations in various media outlets around the world? There are limits of course, since not even Google can climb over pay walls or handle some language issues on alerts, but we are able to track ACORN stories easily in the England and Canada particularly.
This Google Alert was a very important and scary warning to all users of their tools, some of which have huge popularity among recent generations of younger workers who have been bred to collaborate from their earliest school days. Google Docs, Sheets, and similar programs are lifeblood to many. I should probably admit that I’m not the biggest fan, being a late comer still stuck in Microsoft Word, Excel, and the like, out of habit more than love.
To the point, there was a recent so-called election in Russia. President Vladimir Putin was looking for another coronation to continue to lengthen his long stay in office and power along with his party, United Russia. He had jailed his most prominent opponent. Dissidents were in hiding, removed from the ballot, and more. From both home and abroad, they concocted a novel tactic for the election. They would communicate with their base in all of the districts of the Duma and Federal Assembly, their national legislative bodies, which candidate should receive their votes who had the best chance of contending against United Russia either to show or to win, regardless of their politics. News of their tactic hit the New York Times, which may have been an error of over anxiousness and premature certainty. The opposition was going to communicate these signals through Facebook and Google. The Russian government leaned hard on both companies and they folded, blocking utilization during the election. My voice would say, “Shame on them,” but I wouldn’t be surprised.
The next piece of news was more serious. The dissidents tried to use Google’s YouTube to send the message, and were blocked there as well. Once again, not a complete surprise. What shocked me was that they blocked Google Docs, preventing people from any file sharing or access to their own information. Who among us techno-peasants even knew it was possible to block use of Google Docs? For my money, this goes past the pale. This wasn’t a matter of just preventing public speech and discourse that the Russian government feared, but this was a move that went right into the front rooms and offices of organizers, activists, and regular members to eliminate their work and ability to share any information. It might have stopped anything they were doing even outside of the election.
We’re not naïve. ACORN never allowed organizational information to be via Gmail accounts when we learned that they never deleted the information, but kept it all on their servers. Invariably, there would be some leakage as more and more people had private Gmail accounts, but the main business was protected. Google claims more recently that it doesn’t keep everything, but, frankly, I’m not sure.
Now in Russia we find out that somehow there is a way to immobilize the most basic tools used by many like Google Docs. If a government can get Google to do that, can a government also force Google to surrender the information that was in the documents or sheets as well? Why not? Would Google also stand for that?
If we can’t be sure, I’m sure we should not continue to use these tools for the work of social change in Russia or anywhere else in the world. I won’t, if I can help it. Neither should you.