One product stood out this week amongst the standard flurry of Google product releases. It wasn't a Gmail Labs experiment or a new parameter for search. It was a fairly unassuming new product called Dashboard, which aggregates users' personal information from more than 20 Google services into a single, password-protected page.
Google unveiled the new service with a blog post titled, "Transparency, choice, and control – now complete with a Dashboard." The choice and control parts of the equation are pretty clear – users can update their account information directly from the new Dashboard, which is far handier than being forced to visit each page individually.
However, the fact that Google opted to lead its Dashboard blog post with the word "transparency" speaks to a fundamental concern about the company's current position in the world. Some time ago, the company adopted the admirable motto "Don't Be Evil," a slogan pundits have often suggested is a dig at Microsoft.
As Google quickly discovered, however, the adherence to such an abstract notion is at times inversely proportional to the size of a company. As a company grows, opportunities for evil become more numerous, and the ability to police them decreases. Things get even trickier when a company's stated objective is to gather and catalog all the world's information.
Over the past few years, concerns about the "anti-evil" corporation have grown at nearly the same rate as the company itself, from its cooperation with the Chinese government to the cameras it perches atop its Street View vans. The sheer breadth of Google's knowledge base is staggering, something that becomes far more apparent on a personal level when one investigates their own Dashboard.
But if Google has always been so devoted to transparency, why are we only seeing this feature rolled out now?
The answer is that, ultimately, even the most noble corporation is only as transparent as they have to be. The good news, however, is that in this post-Web 2.0 world, the bare minimum is ever increasing. As personal information becomes more publicly available, the same goes for corporate information. The informational megaphone that is Twitter and the blogosphere makes protests all the more powerful.
Remember Amazonfail, the Twitter protest against a seemingly homophobic move on the part of the online retailer? What about the online kerfuffle surrounding Facebook's new Terms of Service? When information moves at the speed of the Web, corporations must operate at a similar pace. This means more than just creating a corporate Twitter account, it means offering information in anticipation of complaints, which is where the concept of transparency comes into play. Companies that make information publicly available have less to hide, and it therefore becomes more difficult to bandy about words like "evil." Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant.
While the advent of Dashboard can be seen as a response to past criticism and an attempt to avoid future accusations, the availability of information like our Web history does have the effect of bringing to light even more questions — such as what exactly does Google plan to do with our information? It's a reminder that, as we hand more and more of our own personal information over to a company like Google, we need to keep asking questions.
Fortunately, the Internet is history's most powerful suggestion box, and if corporations want to operate in that world, they have to listen.