How Google Is Handling Our Insecurities

Some years ago, I had a boyfriend who was prone to fits of jealousy. A close friend of mine, also male, gave me this advice at the time: "If you're dealing with someone who has trust issues, you have to give him an overload of information. Tell him everything, so there's no room for his imagination to fill in the blanks."

Going by Google's behavior this past week, I suspect that same friend is now advising its strategists. Last week, for example, they launched an encrypted Web search option. Just yesterday, they specified the revenue split that they give AdSense publishers. And maybe this is just the cynical New Yorker in me, but I can't help but raise an eyebrow at their timing.

After all, the company is in the process of weathering some media stories that aren't quite as positive. The botched Buzz rollout. The Street View vehicles collecting network info and transmitted data from our homes. The antitrust rumblings coming from Washington. All in all, the whole "Don't be evil" persona has taken a good hit over the past couple of weeks.



You can see why the company would want to take any steps it can toward renewing the public trust (or at least the trust of those paying close enough attention).

Up until now, Google has distinguished itself from other large Web properties by responding quickly and transparently to the concerns being raised. With Buzz, for example, the company changed the service as soon as it got the backlash from automatically making your email contacts follow you. But the Street View and the antitrust issues aren't so simple.

Google can't just return the emails the Street View vehicles collected. Its principals can't just apologize and change the policy (which, of course, they've already done). They will have to face whatever legal reactions come their way from any country where they collected data. And the antitrust conversation is, by its very nature, too big and abstract for the company to deal with through a quick reversal of policy.

So what is left for its strategists to do? They have to deal with the problems directly, of course, but they also need to repair our broken trust. And so, the sharing begins. "Here we are," suggest the press releases and blog posts. "We're not hiding anything. Look, here's our revenue share. Look, you can encrypt your searches. Facebook doesn't let you do that!"

Unfortunately for Google -- and any other company facing an erosion of trust -- you can never prove that you're trustworthy, only that you're untrustworthy. It's a black swan problem. No matter how many white swans you see, you can't prove there are no black swans; but it only takes a single black one to prove that they're there.

No matter how much information I shared with that old boyfriend, I could never prove to him that there wasn't anybody else. Fortunately, with a bit of age and hindsight, I can see clearly that I should never have been trying to convince him in the first place. Google, though, should be trying to convince us. It is incumbent upon it to earn our trust, every day. A single black swan erodes it.

So are the company's efforts working? You tell me. Do you trust Google or not?

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