Let’s talk about Google

Inspired by Isobel’s post from the Ctrl + Alt + Dev blog, I thought I would dive deeper into Google and its social impact activities. I found out that Google in fact supports a number of organisations working with social change.

In the past few weeks, I’ve focused on big data and the implications of data ownership and data colonialism, in particular by Internet giants such as Google. And since Google is also one of the main actors in the data revolution, I thought it fitting to talk about some of the good Google is doing from a development and social impact perspective in my final post.

A slideshow of some Google social impact projects

It didn’t take much digging to find some examples of Google products and offerings for social impact. Here’s a slideshow of some of them.

Digital divide

While these cases offer an abundance of success stories, I wonder if the successes of these projects can be attributed to Google’s power to elevate these said projects and give them precedence over other non-Google funded projects in search results. In other words, does Google rank Google-funded projects higher than ones without Google affiliation? And in this way give them more prominence and visibility to other potential donors, the media and stakeholders that can contribute to the projects’ success.

Further, when private organisations, such as Google.org, contribute to social change projects in this manner, lines can become blurred. And does it contribute to the digital divide between the global north and global south? Funding, technical knowhow and other expertise comes from the elite in the global north, ie. Google in this case. How autonomous are the projects that are funded by Google? This also raises questions of agency and risks of consolidating existing power relations. Technology is only an enabler, and the divide between creating technology and having the power to create, contribute and control content must be addressed.

So, despite my intention of not vilifying Google, I am left with a nagging and persistent thought that behind these altruistic projects lies the undeniable fact that Google is a powerful and influential actor in the data revolution with many interests, and not all of them are altruistic.

But perhaps it’s not a question of who the bad guys in the data revolution are, but how can we empower the ones who are currently excluded in the discussion, for example, women in a large part of the world or those who don’t have access to the Internet. Or just as importantly, a question of who creates content on the Internet and for whom. And within the context of these questions, we must consider gender, race and class, as these are critical factors responsible for limiting who has access to digital in any given context.

One comment

  1. Malin Welin France

    Thank you Lan for a very interesting post! Although it doesn’t surprise me, I wasn’t actually aware of Google’s project funding and investments for social change. You raise a lot of relevant and thought-provoking questions, questions which, when elaborated and pondered on, seem to be able to grow in complexity, until they are almost existential. I believe you are right; in the end, moral, ethical and philosophical contexts have to be considered, but perhaps at this stage it is less about race, gender, and class, and more about what it really means when very few players hold so much of the “digital power” and how that effects the digital world and the users living their digital lives within it – as well as the projects they choose to fund and how – but also the ones they choose not to support. Your question about whether or not Google ranks its own projects higher than others is very relevant, and I believe it is a rather controversial and problematic one. I am really curious about the answer – have you found any indication one way or the other? Does Google offer any transparency here?

    There is no doubt a question of power-play, content control and skewed power relations, and I don’t think users are aware of, or realize, to what extent these “internet giants” really do control where you look and what you see.
    I think it is wonderful that the concept of social enterprise is growing more and more common and increasing numbers of large companies and corporations, with massive backing and financial resources, choose to invest in doing good and being a force behind social change (whether they believe in it, or for branding purposes, or both). But we – as users, ComDev practitioners, and members of the global North – need to continuously demand transparency and quality control as a step in measuring its developmental success.

    You write about blurring lines when looking at private organizations who contribute to projects of social change “in this manner,” and I’m curious what you mean about this? Are you talking about a defining line between non-profit and for-profit? About altruistic motives mixing with ambitions of power, money and control? Or was your thought something different? Would love to hear more about this!

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