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Despite its censorship concerns, Google is part of a small group which operates in startling parallel to the failed financial sector
guardian.co.uk, Monday 16 April 2012 14.28 EDT
Google’s Sergey Brin has expressed concern about rival Facebook fencing off the internet, but the search company itself has never been ‘open’. Photograph: Robin Beckham/Beepstock/Alamy
As Google co-founder Sergey Brin pointed out in an interview with the Guardian, the future of the “open web” is under threat. The billionaire laid out his concerns that a combination of repressive governments and companies like Google’s arch rivals, Apple and Facebook, are seeking to fence off or stifle the power of the internet.
Brin’s contention that censorship and “walled gardens”, such as Apple’s operating systems and Facebook’s world of applications, will throttle the world of free and linked information on which Google has built its fortune may be right. But it is also the case that many see Google’s credibility and reliability as a standard bearer for the open web as increasingly compromised.
Google does indeed thrive on a world of linked and available content which can be searched and then organised by its algorithms and presented complete with attendant advertising. However, this enthusiasm for openness is in direct contradiction to some of the company’s recent practices. Google has never been an “open” company: it is famously and fiercely protective of its own intellectual property in its algorithms; it routinely issues NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) to visitors to its labs and offices, and the level of control it exerts over both its own corporate destiny and the information of its users has recently caused disquiet.
Only last week Google caused consternation by issuing new classifications of non-voting shares, which increased the control of Brin and his founding partner and Google chief executive, Larry Page, over the long-term future of the company. In the past few months Google has also drawn the wrong kind of headlines for the way it collects and uses individual data.
As recently as Saturday the New York Times ran a lengthy article about Google attracting a $25,000 (£15,700) fine from the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, for blocking and delaying an investigation into “mistakes” the company made whilst collecting images and data for its Street View mapping project. In 2010 Google admitted that over a three-year period it had not just been photographing people’s houses, but scanning their unprotected wireless data in the process. This “inadvertent” mistake included storing data from emails, instant messages and web browsing activity.
Another “mistake” occurred when the company was caught trying to circumvent privacy controls set by the Safari browser. For an organisation led and staffed by the top 1% of the world’s engineering PhDs, Google’s bumbling activities around privacy controls look suspicious.
But perhaps most telling of all has been Google’s attempts to thwart the rampant growth of Facebook by becoming more “social”. The launch of its social platform Google+, a rather uninspiring product which has not been adopted by users with the alacrity of Twitter or Facebook, brought with it a whole series of unGoogle-like activities. For the first time “social” search results showed up in those delivered by Google’s algorithms, amid criticism that this was not the “unbiased” presentation of information but Google leveraging its stronger search capabilities to push people into using its weaker social platform.
To add a further layer of unease, Google announced earlier in the year that it would collect data from users across all the Google products they used, in order to deliver “better” search results.
The ardent caucus of Google fans in the US technical press, whose ingestion of Google Kool-Aid adds to the sense of cult-like support around the company, argue that Google is more transparent than its rivals, and still produces better products. But this is not the point. The point is that Google, with its worry over government interventions and the rise of the equally unappealing Facebook, is only a defender of the open doctrine in as far as it helps it reach business goals. Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this either. Every business does it. However, it is also manifestly obvious that the operation of the web as an open and “generative” system, to quote Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain, needs oversight which prioritises citizens over consumers.
Although no one as far as we know is going to lose their home or job as a result of Google being sloppy with its privacy controls, or Facebook collecting every tiny detail of your social activity, the parallels between the tech industry in Silicon Valley now and the financial system which so catastrophically failed in recent years is startling. A small elite of gifted (largely male) super-wealthy masters of the universe are creating systems through their own brilliance which very few others in government, regulation or the general public can understand. The engineering of products which people like and use, and the startling creation of wealth which accompanies them, has a dampening effect on the criticisms and concerns of those who believe that the control of the few over the data of the many has potentially serious consequences.
Here is where the real threat to the open web lies. A series of decisions made by an elite of ferociously competitive business owners, whose consequences are unclear and whose methods are poorly understood by those who are increasingly dependent on the products and services of these opaque companies.
• This article was amended on 17 April 2012 to correct a mispelling of Sergey Brin’s name in the picture caption and body text.
Originally posted here