The Verge 2018 tech report card: Google

2018 should have been a banner year for Google. It marked the 20th anniversary of the company itself, the 10 year anniversary of Android, and the 10 year anniversary of Chrome. But 2018 has been a year of reckoning for most of the big tech giants, and the scales have fallen from everybody’s eyes when they look at Google. From privacy to products to the treatment of its own employees and contractors, the banner is tattered.

I think the story of Google in 2018 is that it has lost some of the trust it previously enjoyed. It’s not totally gone, but it’s eroding — and most critically, that erosion appears to be happening from the inside out. Google’s own employees are showing signs (sometimes literal protest signs) that they are losing trust in their own company

Google does so many different things and has faced so many challenges, it’s hard to know where to start. But here’s what I think is the most clarifying moment: after an investigation by the New York Times revealed a troubling set of payouts to executives who had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct, 20,000 employees walked out on their jobs in protest.

Googlers protesting corporate harassment policies earlier this month in New York City.

It was a heartening sign of employees pushing back on the problems of their own companies, but that doesn’t erase the original problem. Nor has Google’s response been entirely satisfactory — and given the apparent scope of the problems, it’s appropriate to keep pushing.

It’s also far from the only pushback against potential corporate misconduct. Employees have organized to argue to management that building a censored search engine for China would be unacceptable. And despite claims that there are “no plans” to launch it “right now,” the Dragonfly project never seems to just be fully repudiated and buried. Even a recent report that the end of a data collection scheme could effectively end the program doesn’t represent an official — and officially stated — end to Google’s China ambitions.

Google may be the big tech company facing the most internal pressure to change, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an erosion of trust from the outside. When Google decided to shut down Google+ because of a years-long security flaw that could have given third-party developers access to private data, it also became clear that the company decided not to disclose that flaw until a Wall Street Journal story forced Google’s hand. It later discovered another security issue and moved that date up

People learned to distrust Google’s location tracking and even its browser settings defaults. They also learned not to trust that its products would stick around: there are other service shutdowns coming. Most notable among them is Allo, Google’s little-used messaging app. Not that many people used it (that was part of the problem), but we learned that Google is ceding the entire mobile messaging space to the carriers and to other companies. The carriers will offer RCS instead of SMS at some point, but the launch is happening predictably slowly and sporadically and when it finally happens, Google won’t offer Android users a fully encrypted way to text each other.

Another crystalizing moment was the unveil of Google Duplex. It’s a whiz-bang feature where an AI can make restaurant reservations for you, and in another time we’d have just trusted that Google was creating a neat future through machine learning. But in the initial demo, Google didn’t seem to recognize that people might not want an AI that’s virtually indistinguishable from a human — and it took entirely too long for the company to get its story straight about how that AI might disclose that it isn’t a human. In another year, more people might have given Google the benefit of the doubt on Duplex.

Trust has also eroded in YouTube — in a much more serious way. YouTube Rewind is the most downvoted video in history. There’s a reason for that: the company caused angst amongst its creators while not serving its actual users well for pretty much the entire year. Conspiracy theories, drama, and worse abounded on the platform and Google has not been up to the task of dealing with it all. We have much more on YouTube’s current problems here.

Here’s another important constituency that doesn’t trust Google much: the European Union. It slapped a $5 billion fine on the company for bundling its own apps on Android phones, forcing Google to completely change how Android is distributed. And the repercussions of GDPR are going to keep coming for a long time to come.

It wasn’t all bad: on the hardware product front: the Pixel phone turned out to be good this year (though there were too many launch bugs and leaks ahead of said launch), the Google Home Hub is great, and the Pixel Slate is bad — turns out Google is just as bad (or worse) at figuring out how tablets should work as everybody else.

The company has also done a slightly better job with how it presents news — it is appearing in more prominent places on Google’s platforms now, but has thus far not been a prominent source of misinformation or worry. Part of that is because Google’s recent news products are relatively new and part of it is because it’s difficult to know who’s seeing what and where — and, to be charitable, Google does seem to be doing some of the right things when it comes to fact checking and presenting information.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai had a kind of final test in mid-December: testimony before Congress. He avoided going to earlier hearings — and Congress literally put an empty chair in his place the first go round. This second go-round had predictably bad questions from Congresspeople who were more interested in pushing a narrative that Google Search had a bias against conservatives than digging into, well, any of the issues enumerated above. Pichai passed, in other words, but it was the teachers who didn’t do their homework.

If we’ve learned anything about our attitudes towards tech companies this year, it’s that our opinions shift a little and then all at once in huge wave — just ask Facebook. Trust in Google has shifted a little, and now it’s on the executives running the company to prevent the wave.

Final Grade: C

C

2018 Grade

The Verge 2018 report card: Google

Gold Stars

  • Check out that camera on the Pixel
  • Killing Google+
  • A News product that isn't destroying democracy

Needs Improvement

  • Treatment of employees across a range of issues
  • Disclosing more to the public about privacy, efforts in China
  • Eroding trust from employees and customers

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