Google: The real questions we should be asking

Google, who famously coined the motto “don’t be evil,” has had a tough time recently. First, it was lambasted for introducing charges to its map service for sites attracting more than 25,000 hits per day. Next, one of Google’s affiliates was caught playing dirty in Kenya, scraping third party IP without permission and trying to poach customers by deception. Around the same time, people pointed the finger at Google for vandalising OpenStreetMap data  in what seemed a related incident. A week later, Google announced a deal with the World Bank which appears to be handing Google a pseudo-monopoly on crowd-sourced mapping in developing countries. Then came the new privacy policy where Google is merging the terms and conditions of multiple products into one, which some said amounts to the end of privacy on the web. And finally, last week a French court fined Google €500,000 over anti-competitive tactics, that is, a “general elimination strategy” of smaller competitors.

All this matters, of course, because Google is a dominant player in a large market and most of us make use of its services. Nobody – including Google – will agree with the use of illegal practices but beyond that it becomes much less black and white. So how did you react to the recent events?

  1. If you’re a passionate advocate for open data, privacy or fair competition, you will probably have come to the conculsion that Google is evil. That was indeed the predominant stance taken by the tech media and blogosphere.
  2. If you’re a Google fan (or employee) you will see a bigger picture of Google trying to provide a better service around its self-proclaimed mission of “organising the world’s information.” So you may have reacted with a mix of feelings including embarrassment, bemusement, or righteousness.
  3. If you’re a bystander you may just be thinking – yeah, Google has simply become a big company and needs to face up to the kind of challenges experienced by any major multinational. That seems to have been the stance of the mainstream media, who largely ignored most of it.

All of these attitudes are valid to a point, but none is entirely satisfactory. What I’ve been missing in recent weeks is reporting that looks at the bigger picture, and much of that should be looking at what we, as a society, actually expect from the internet now.

The Google privacy policy and map charges got some people hot under the collar but what’s the real story here – has Google become such a public commodity that people think it now belongs to them rather than the shareholders? What then, you want to nationalise it? Following through on that argument, be careful what you wish for.

A lof of issues of the online market are directly related to common attitudes and practices of national government bodies and regulators. For example, why did the World Bank’s lawyers think it was okay to sign this deal with Google? Were they so naïve that competition concerns didn’t even occur to them, or was it a conscious decision based on hardnosed pragmatism? Are we comfortable with national governments interfering in commercial markets, handing single players (including sometimes their own agencies) a unique competitive advantage? Also see e.g. these pieces on ESRI or Ordnance Survey.

Should regulators not be more concerned about the ever deeper entrenchment of established players? This is not just about Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple, but also about smaller niche companies who are busy creating pseudo-monopolies in their own sectors. There are solid garden walls emerging everywhere on the web, partly because the established players capitalised on their first mover advantage, and partly because their product is such that it feeds off its own users in a perpetual virtuous circle at the exclusion of others (think e.g. of social networks like Linkedin or proprietary formatted music or data sites that are not interoperable).

The result is that users are suffering from vendor lock-in and that new players are prevented from entering the market. Where’s the interoperability? Where’s the consumer choice and freedom to move your data between suppliers? Try migrating your friends between Twitter, Facebook or Google+, or your cloud data from Amazon to Azure, and you see what I mean.

It is this that we should be worried about, not (just) the behaviour of individual companies. What we need is a considered approach and not cheap headlines. Whatever Google does or doesn’t do is mostly a matter for them, their shareholders and their customers, and good luck to them all. What we need is a level playing field, open to all, and that is not Google’s job alone. This is where political leaders and regulators need to step in.

And they will only do so if we ask the right questions.

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