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.
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.