Google

Nominated for Worst Corporate Offender

Wednesday 22 February 2006

Reasons for this nomination

For teaming up with J. Craig Venter to create a searchable online database of all the genes on the planet so that individuals and pharmaceutical companies alike can 'google' our genes - one day bringing the tools of biopiracy online.

Google, in co-operation with Craig Venter, are developing plans to make all of our genomes googlable to facilitate the brave new world of private genetically-tailored medicines. Google are reportedly making their massive computing power available to the J Craig Venter Foundation for gene sequencing to generate a gene catalogue for all the genes on the planet. Individual users will then input their own genetic sequence for a read out of their genetic predispositions analyzed against the existing database. Think Google already know too much about you? Think how much they are soon going to know...

Supporting info

Google's motto, "Don't be Evil," may soon take a backseat to a new mission statement unveiled by CEO Eric Schmidt in early March 2006: "We want to be able to store everybody's information all the time." Already causing concern over the way it uses (or could use) the vast amount of Google-user information it has collected and stored over the years, the company has now set the sights of its all-seeing eyes even higher. Google's massive computer power and cutting-edge data-mining capacity make it a logical partner for Craig Venter and his ever-expanding collection of DNA samples taken from humans, animals and microbes living in soil, sea and air. In The Google Story, the 2005 book by Mark Malseed and David A. Vise, Venter referred to the pairing of a giant search engine and massive amounts of genomic data as "the ultimate intersection of technology and health." Venter expects that the details of one's genetic code "should be broadly available through a service like Google within a decade."

News of the Venter/Google hook-up was announced a new book, The Google Story, by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed in a chapter approved by Google before publication. The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book on their website including an interview with Craig Venter.

"We need to use the largest computers in the world," Venter said. "Larry and Sergey [founders of Google] have been excited about our work and about giving us access to their computers and their algorithm guys and scientists to improve the process of analyzing data. It shows the broadness of their thinking. Genetic information is going to be the leading edge of information that is going to change the world. Working with Google, we are trying to generate a gene catalogue tocharacterize all the genes on the planet and understand their evolutionarydevelopment. Geneticists have wanted to do this for generations."

"Over time," Venter said, "Google will build up a genetic database, analyze it, and find meaningful correlations for individuals and populations." It is utilizing the 30,000 genes discovered by Venter and scientists from the National Institutes of Health when they were racing to beat one another to map the human genome.

Since the publication of The Google Story, Google's press office has downplayed its role in the project, perhaps because the ethical issues related to genetic privacy are even stickier than the ones currently bogging down the company. Nonetheless a recent internal video released from the Googleplex shows that the company are still very actively pursuing the goal of putting genomic information online for free. In a video of a talk to Google staff last month Russ Altman (Director of the Center for Biomedical Computation at Stanford University) laid out some of the the promise and problems that Google will face in putting the genomic information of over 6 billion people online. In the video Altman, who already runs an online genome database called PharmGKB, freely admits that pharmaceutical companies regularly download his entire data set for their own commercial use and that its not possible to fully anonymise the genomic information that is stored since an individual 'genetic fingerprint' can always be detected. Its not clear yet where Google intends to gather its genomic information from beyond Venter's sources or how it will prevent corporations stealing the genomic informations for their own profit and monopoly.

Full excerpt of 'Googling the Genome' at washingtonpost.com...

An ETC Group Briefing "HyPEing The Human Genome" offers a critical perspective on the new agenda of personalised genomic medicine that is behind the new Venter/Google collaboration.

See also a 2004 article from the UK Guardian newspaper, also called Googling the Genome, published well before the Venter/Google project was made public.