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Open Data and Open Internet Dogma: Sergey Brin’s Guardian Interview and the Political Economy of Google

The Guardian ran a great set of articles last week, the “Battle for the Internet”.  It included essays, video-shorts and interviews with the A-list of the Twitterati, bloggers, pundits, and OSPs (other smart people), from Clay Shirky, dayna boyd, Evgeny Morozov, Emily Bell, and more.

Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, director and major shareholder kicked things off with an interview on Monday with a full-throated defense of “open data” and an “open Internet”. “Web freedom faces the greatest threat ever”, he warned.

Brin skewered governments, Facebook and Apple, and the copyright grab by the entertainment industries in uncharacteristically blunt terms for the mounting threats. He condemned authoritarian regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, of course. And he chastised the steady creep of complex, costly and unpredictable government regulation and national security pressures in all countries.

Facebook and Apple’s walled garden approaches were singled out because, Brin argued, they “risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web”. “All the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it . . . . There’s a lot to be lost,” he continued.

Finally, Brin lambasted the entertainment industries’ push to turn ISPs, search engines and other digital intermediaries into copyright cops through bills such as SOPA and PIPA in the United States, and their equivalents elsewhere. It is a checklist of some of the most important forces bearing down on the internet that others have identified for more than a decade, starting notably with Lawrence Lessig’s Code in 1999.

Most of what Brin says in the Guardian interview is not new, however, and can be found in the company’s latest annual report. When your Promethean mission is to “organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, as the “about” page of Google’s corporate website and in its annual report (p. 3) boasts, government imposed web blockades and surveillance, exclusive walled gardens and excessive copyright are a threat to your business.

Probably the most surprising thing that Brin told the Guardian is that he no longer believes the internet is an uncontrollable technology.  Five years ago “I thought there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now . . . “, he says, “it seems in certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle”.

It is the end of a dream. For those who still cling to the idea that the internet cannot be regulated, Brin’s disillusioned conversion will come as a needed surprise.

Brin quickly recanted from his denunciation of the digital feudalism represented by Apple and Facebook’s walled garden strategies in the face of criticism. In a blog post two days after the Guardian interview, he “clarified” that he actually deeply admires Facebook and Apple. And of course, the power of the state is wholly different than the search for profit and power through the market, he reassured everyone. And peace returned to the kingdom . . . .

That may be so, but Google’s annual report does single out social media companies as threats to the searchable web and as a risk to the company’s advertising business from which 96% of its $38 billion in revenue last year came (see p. 9). Indeed, a comprehensive and universally searchable web is the engine of the Google machine, responsible for cranking out profits in excess of 25 percent per year. There is no doubt that walled gardens and tethered apps could obliterate Google’s bottom-line by putting more and more of the internet beyond the reach of search and undermining the hyper-linking structure that has made the internet what it is.

A searchable web is a navigable web and this is not just in Google’s self-interest, however, but everybody who uses it. As Google states in its annual report, the company is fully committed to making “the internet a more useful and enjoyable experience for our users” (p. 9). Of this, I have little doubt. The problem is not the neglect of users, but rather the potential for over coddling and cocooning them in a web of their own information — a ‘filter bubble’ (Pariser).

Searching and linking really are useful and in this case what is good for Google, is good for us. These functions help to filter the potential disorder of a million voices all clamouring at once for attention — the Babble Effect — into a meaningful and intelligible shape (see Benkler; van Couvering). Searching and linking are also good for democracy, according to Yochai Benkler, although that does not mean that they eliminate social, political, economic, media and cultural power. They do not. In fact, they can and do concentrate attention while also reproducing and reinforcing hierarchies of power just like in the ‘real world’ (Hindman, Davis, ch. 7, BakerShirky).

Openness and transparency, searching and linking without limits are in many instances desirable things, but not always. However, Google’s appeal to them is one-sided, flat and selective, even if seductive. This is not to say that it’s appeals to these values are false. They are not and I think that there is no doubt that Google has more than just a shallow commitment to values that go beyond its corporate bottom line.

Indeed, even critics acknowledge this. Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance, in The Googlization of Everythingsees Google’s commitment to making all the world’s information accessible as embodying something deeply desirable — a Digital Alexandria for the 21st Century, perhaps — but which is also a messianic and technocratic project driven by the mindset of engineers, and ego centric ones at that. Evgeny Morozov, in The Net Delusion refers to the “Google Doctrine”, the notion that the alchemy of Silicon Valley capital mixed with internet and enlightened State policies by the governments of the west will solve all the world’s problems and universal peace will settle in over all its peoples.

To its admirers, Google’s motto is not just rhetoric, but a whole way of being — an ontology — that dazzles and forces us in the face of challenges to ask, WWGD? (“What Would Google do?“, as Jeff Jarvis fawningly puts it in his homage to Brin, Page and Schmitt at Google & Co). Brin encourages a similar kind of view by linking his own personal biography with Google’s values in the opening pages of the company’s annual report.

Google’s rhetoric and what others have to say about it are also matched by several real initiatives that go beyond the corporate bottom line. Take, for example, the Measurement Lab (MLab) created by Google, the New America Foundation and the PlanetLab Consortium in 2008 and operated ever since.  The M-Lab allows internet users across the planet “to test whether their ISP is blocking or throttling BitTorrent and other protocols” free of charge.

Canadians, for instance, learn that they have one of the most throttled internet systems amongst the forty countries monitored by the MLab Project.  We also learn that Rogers has the dubious distinction of being the heaviest throttler of BitTorrent of all ISPs surveyed. The chart below shows levels of BitTorrent throttling in Canada relative to the US, UK, Finland, Australia and New Zealand.

Table 2: Network Throttling in Select Countries, 2008 – 2010

 

2008

 

2009

 

2010

 

AVG RNG AVG RNG AVG RNG
Canada

10

26

29

87

20

75

US

17

47

14

60

6

14

UK

16

23

26

44

13

21

Finland

6

5

5

3

6

3

Australia

11

16

21

29

9

16

New Zealand

19

23

32

37

10

1

Source: M-Labs.

This is useful data to have, indeed.

Google also created and maintains the Transparency Project, which documents the number of requests that governments make to Google to take down or block access to specific content, or websites. The number of requests from government sources in Canada are comparatively low. In the U.S., they are comparatively high. The Transparency Project also maps internet traffic patterns around the world to detect barriers to the free flow of information, whether that is coming from government restrictions, broken cables or other obstructions in the internet plumbing.

Google’s participation in the Global Network Initiative, an effort set up in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a forum for commercial internet companies to wrestle with the rights, responsibilities and ethics of freedom of expression and privacy online, is yet another good example.  To be sure, there is much to be desired with respect to the GNI and questions about what it has accomplished, if anything. Nonetheless, it does bring together several major internet companies with leading scholars and public interest groups that have solid track-records on these issues, such as the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard, Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Index on Censorship, Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Press Freedom Committee, and so forth. Facebook and Twitter, in contrast, are missing in action.

At the same time that Google’s commitment to transparency, open data and the open internet are in many ways laudable, its’ conception of these things are simplistic, one sided and selective. As the company itself notes in its annual report, its own business relies on “confidential procedures” (p. 6). The detailed mechanics of the company’s Page Rank system that it uses to index the web and serve up search results are also shrouded in mystery. Only a very select view have seen behind the curtain.

The company’s ownership structure is also based on tight control. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt control two-thirds of Google’s voting shares and use this to make decisions from the top. It keeps the rest of the commoners at bay, and it is not the most open way to do business. The company’s own Annual Report states, “this concentrated control could discourage others from initiating any potential merger, takeover, or other change of control transaction that other stockholders may view as beneficial”. It appears that openness has it limits.

When it comes to the ownership and control of our personal information online, however, Google’s stance is that there are no such limits and not surprisingly so, since openness removes any impediments to the unlimited, systematic and comprehensive collection of user-generated information that are the foundation of its business. As Christian Fuchs notes in his A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Google, internet users produce reams of information without pay for the likes not just of Google but Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the rest of the social media platforms whose businesses depend almost entirely on the limitless collection of personal data and the hyper-exploitation of our ‘free labour’. This unlimited collection and analysis of personal information, remember, is the foundation of Google’s revenues of roughly $38 billion last year.

The debate is not whether or not Google, Facebook and Apple dominate their respective spaces, but whether that dominance will prove relatively immovable or transitory (also here and here). There are only a few countries where Google is not the dominant force in search and online advertising: China, Russia, Korea. In the U.S., Google’s revenues of approximately $17.5 billion in 2011 accounted for well over half of all online advertising revenues, which emarketer put at roughly $32 billion last year.

 

Google Share of Search

USA 66
Germany 93
UK 80
France 90
Italy 88
Canada 81
Australia 92.5
New Zealand 76
S. Korea 9
China 13
Japan 48
Avg Google (67)

Source:  Comscore, 2010a, Data Passport – 1st Half 2010; Comscore, 2010b, Data Passport – 2nd Half 2010; Alexa.com Top 50

Google’s dominant position means that its own standards with respect to data collection, retention and use also serve as defacto standards of what we can expect when it comes to online privacy. The flipside of Google’s full-throated defense of transparency is that any limits to the collection of personal data are a threat to the ‘free flow of information’. Indeed, EU moves to enhance personal data protection have been branded in exactly such terms, an affront to the ‘open Internet’.

Yet such a view is simplistic, and an opportunistic manipulation of the language and values associated with the internet that are worthwhile when pursued in a less hamfisted way. As scholars such as Helen Nissenbaum have long noted, the idea of privacy is not simply the desire to be left alone but our capacity to set the conditions for how information about ourselves is disclosed and used. And those decisions do not hinge on dogmatic adherance to values in the abstract but notions of trust forged with an eye to the quality of the relationship that we are involved in at a given moment and the contingent, contextual features in which our activities and relationships with others are couched. In short, the more intimate the relationship, the more we are likely to disclose. That is why it’s okay to get naked with a lover, but not in the streets or with Google.

Openness can also be a threat in dangerous situations, whether that’s being gay in a small town or during revolutionary times when confronting repressive states armed to the teeth. That, unfortunately, was a lesson learned the hard way by several people in North Africa and the Middle East during Arab Spring as well as the London Riots last summer when their posts to Facebook were used by the military and police, respectively, to track people down.

So, come to think of it, perhaps it’s a good idea that Facebook is walled off from search. Maybe people don’t want their activities on Facebook to be open and searchable by the whole world? There are already serious issues with Facebook’s own unbridled exploitation of personal data that it would be unwise to permit Google to open it even further to search and disclosure on the basis of its own blind adherence to “making all the world’s information universally available and accessible”.

Ultimately, dogmatic adherence to ‘open data’ and the open internet serve no one well. Recent U.S. court cases have also made it clear that  businesses built upon maximizing collection of personal information also makes such services easy targets for State surveillance.

Who owns your personal information? Not you, according to the courts, when the terms of service policies of Google, Facebook and Twitter baldly state that their business depends on the open and unlimited collection of user data as the foundation of their own businesses (see herehere and here).

Seen from this angle, then, openness is not just a license for Google to exploit the collection of user generated content/data for its own promethean pursuits, but a recipe for turning the digital media behemoths that now straddle many of the key cross-roads of cyberspace into functionaries serving the interests of the State and others. Indeed, this is exactly why Google, social media sites (Facebook and Twitter), music downloading sites (Apple) and payment providers (Paypal) and so forth are being targeted for inclusion into the apparatus of copyright enforcement, law enforcement and national security.

In other words, blind allegiance to the ‘open data, open internet’ mantra gives rise to several of the problems that Brin railed about in the Guardian interview to begin with. Only once we abandon one-sided and dogmatic notions of openness will we be able to achieve the kind of internet fit for free citizens in a democratic society.

Why Google Monopoly Matters

Okay, there, got your attention. Google Monopoly. Sounds sinister, eh?

The point of this post is not to get into what all the implications of such a thing — Google’s dominant market power — but instead to comment on the steady drip of blog postings and articles that keep telling us to, move along, nothing to be gained by thinking about Google as a dominant force in today’s network media environment. Indeed, to listen to this cant, its just plain stupid to even raise the issue of anti-trust when it comes to Google’s overwhelming dominance of search, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decided to do in June of this year.

The major brew sites for this kind of stuff, as far as I can see, include outfits like the Technology Liberation Front, a libertarian group utterly enthralled with free market fundamentalism (see here and here), entrepreneurial journalism guru Jeff Jarvis, and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm (see here and here). In his latest missive, Ingram takes aim at a story by Chris O’Brien called, Google’s grip on users is as firm as it is invisible. Awesome title! I can’t wait to read it.

My aim though is not to judge O’Brien’s work but rather the silly case that there’s nothing to even bother looking at when it comes to Google’s growing dominance of a growing suite of online digital media services (search, servers, browsers, operating systems, maps, document storage, distribution of online advertising revenue, etc.). So too should we turn a willful blind eye,  sings the ‘move-along crowd’ from the same hymn sheet, toGoogle’s powerful array of servers buried deep in cyberbunkers and in other locations scattered around the planet (yes, cyberbunkers, as some of them literally are in old ‘cold war’ missile silos) (for more on bunkers, bandwidth and datacentres, see paper by Peter Jakobsson & Frederik Stiernstedt). Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Yet, dominant communication and digital media players tend to be close to the state, and easily regulated by the state, turned into proxies in the copyright wars, moral crusades against online erotica, national security crackdowns (Patriot Act, “Lawful Access” anyone?). So, even from an uber libertarian position, we should be skeptical of concentrated power — gateways through which the sluices of cyberspace flow. Anybody that thinks that is far fetched, can have a look at Microsoft’s recent statement on the issue here.

It is hard to decide just where to start when confronting this, “move along” mentality. Let me start by saying that it would be real nice to have direct links to the Federal Trade Commission’s launch of an anti-trust investigation in June, earlier this year. None of these guys do that, and instead just cycle us through links to various online newspapers and other such sources. I looked the other day and didn’t find one directly, but I’m busy and not the one telling people to bugger off. Here’s a link to Google’s response to the FTC announcement, however, and another to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings held last month, “The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition“. I hope you find them helpful.

Many of the ‘turn away, don’t look crowd’ assert that it’s very hard to count market power. They’ve got a point, it is. The problem, however, is they but don’t even try.

Instead, Ingram for example, offers up some numbers of unknown providence showing Google’s dominance of search to be in the 65% range, falling, and proof that the company is not unassailable. However, what he forgets to mention, even though writing from Canada, is that those are just the numbers for the US (see below).

There is a lot of hand-wringing amongst the “don’t look crowd” too about the poor availability and low quality of the data on the subject. Yet, the numbers available quite easy to find, reasonably reputable, replicable, and of a piece so to speak (see for example Alexa.com, Experien Hitwise, Comscore). The number 65% so often pointed to is for US; it flunctuates in a 2 percent band from month to month, but has stayed remarkably steady after plateauing at that level.

There are many comparison made, too, mostly unfavourable to the 1990s and all the misguided diagnoses then. Of course, the myths of the era are legendary, but pointing to predictions made then about say Yahoo, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, Altavista, and a myriad number of other entities is not apt precisely because at that point in time there wasn’t a dominant entity like Google, and search had not yet emerged as the nexus through which so much else flowed. At the time, it was not flow-through, however, that was key, but rather keeping people happily enveloped in walled gardens. A disaster all away around, and thank god things didn’t pan out as imagined.

But search has emerged as a key gateway through which the masses must flow. And one thing that our US-centric, move-along crowd forget to note is that their preferred number of 65% of all searches going to Google applies only to the United States. The numbers for Google globally are typically in the 80 to 90 percent range, including the low 80s here in Canada. They are as high as 93 percent in Australia. And the trend, at least until 2010, has been one of growing dominance, not shrinking.

Google is company non-grata in China, Japan, Korea, Russia. Monopolies there remain nonetheless. There is something about this area — and others, including FB — of the digital media that is prone to consolidation. That may not be illegal — which, again, our ‘move along crowd’ never fails to mention — but levels of concentration this high are high even by the historical standards of the ‘industrial media era’. They may not be illegal, but they are a signal to perk up and pay attention and that, generally speaking, even from the perspective of free marketeers, the situation is a far cry away from the ideals of a competitive market.

Another argument from the ‘move along crowd’ is that dominant companies such as Google are not nearly as omnipotent and immovable as the fantom foes they conjure up would like us to think.  Tim Wu’s the Master Switch seems to be the favourite whipping boy of this group as of late, attributing to him the notion that digital media  monopolies/consolidation are immutable and omnipotent.  Yet, this is a mischaracterization. Wu, like other such as Yochai Benkler, do not argue that players with dominant market power are either omnipotent or permanent, but a regularly occurring feature on the ‘infoscape’. They may be transitory, but also hard to move and sometimes a short time turns into a very long time, indeed — like 70-80 years for the ‘natural monopoly’ telecos throughout most of the 20th century.

This is basic Schumpeterian innovation economics and the move along crowd ignores it, but it ’tis all the rage, even amongst some of the folks amongst this crowd. And while transitory, monopolists/dominant firms can fundamentally tilt things — and then bury them in the metal (servers, search, networks) so to speak — for better or worse. So, when a dominant company like Google (or Facebook, or Amazon, or Apple, or . . .) dominate particular nodes in networked spaces — which are simultaneously social spaces and market places, and much else in between — we need to do our utmost to see that things point more towards better than the worst.

We need to pay attention, and not bury our heads in the sand, and make up excuses as to why we should turn a blind eye to such an obvious phenomenon. We can debate until the cow’s come home what all of the implications of ‘digital media concentration’ might mean, if in fact it exists at all, but a few basic facts on the ground, some references to historical cycles repeating (from methodless enthusiasm, to competition, to consolidation, ala Wu, Benkler, Gabel, Babe, etc.), and presto, we have a recipe for conversation about digital media consolidation and democracy in the 21st century.

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