Monday, April 06, 2009

Is Google an amoral monopoly?

I have read with interest Henry Porter's scathing indictment of Google in yesterday's Observer, an article generating some heated discussion online. While I often enjoy his writings, I have to say that on this occasion he has written a thoroughly misinformed article that seems to conflate concepts and technologies. I won't get into the attack on Scribd as it is a site that I am unfamiliar with, but will concentrate on his views about Google (others have dealt with this point).

While I want to highlight specific errors and inconsistencies with the article, I believe that Porter is informed generally by a visceral dislike of authority, exemplified by today's article against data retention regulations. While I share some of his views with regards to civil liberties, I cannot help but suspect that in this instance he is barking up the wrong tree (I have always been amused by this English phrase, how does a dog bark at the wrong tree anyway? But I digress). Anyway, Porter's first dodgy argument comes when talking about Google's strategy against PRS by removing music videos from his site. He says:

"Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned. It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe."
This is a horrendous misrepresentation of the PRS-YouTube debate. Google is a business, and as such it has a right not to lose money every time a video is played. The music industry is asking for way too much money every time a video is played on YouTube, and Google has every right to remove such outlet for musicians if their demands are not sensible. YouTube provides a valuable service to artists by letting them reach an audience, and one might add, Google is entirely willing to pay for it. It is very telling that artists like Billy Bragg are vociferously complaining about Google's negotiating tactic, because they know that not having this service will be detrimental to their market exposure. Why should Google be expected to provide them with a valuable service and suffer financially from it? I for one believe that Google is entirely justified in calling PRS' bluff. Does Google hold disproportionate power? Maybe, but Google should not be expected to support flawed business models. Porter then goes on to say:
"Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time."
What a diabolical paragraph! This seems to imply that anyone who does not create content and simply offers an aggregating service is by definition a "parasite" that has done no investment whatsoever. Google has invested millions of dollars in creating a vast an complex infrastructure that allows users to access, create and aggregate content. This can be as valuable as the act of creating the content itself. I am writing this using a Google service, and have found some information using two other of its services: the search engine and newsreader. These are tangible, useful and valuable services that make it easier for content creators to get their message across. If Porter cannot see this as a non-parasitic function, then I am afraid that his arguments inhabit a sphere of wrongness that rationality cannot touch. The content industries are filled with aggregated service providers: publishers, distributors, retailers, hardware and portable media manufacturers, publicists, administrative staff, et cetera. Are all of these "parasites" as well? Porter continues:
"One of the chief casualties of the web revolution is the newspaper business, which now finds itself laden with debt (not Google's fault) and having to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive. Newspapers can of course remove their content but then their own advertising revenues and profiles decline. In effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Were newspapers to combine to take on Google they would be almost certainly in breach of competition law."
Now I think we come to the hidden reason behind the article. While Porter claims that Google is not to blame for the debt incurred by the newspaper industry (how kind of him to exculpate them of something nobody has accused them of), he seems to imply that Google is to blame for some of the printed media's woes. Firstly, newspapers are not forced to give their content for free, Google News searches and offers a small snippet of news articles, and sometimes also small pics from the original source, but the full article is still linked to, so that users can go to the source easily. This is an excellent service, and one that I use often. I cannot see what is the problem with allowing a search engine to index your content and make it available to a wider audience. Secondly, is Porter arguing that news sources could offer a similar service if they grouped together? Forgive me if I laugh at such a ridiculous notion.
"This particular 11-year-old has known nothing but success and does not understand the risks, skill and failure involved in the creation of original content, nor the delicate relationships that exist outside its own desires and experience. There is a brattish, clever amorality about Google that allows it to censor the pages on its Chinese service without the slightest self doubt, store vast quantities of unnecessary information about every Google search, and menace the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny. And, naturally, it did not exercise Google executives that Street View not only invaded the privacy of millions and made the job of burglars easier but somehow laid claim to Britain's civic spaces. How gratifying to hear of the villagers of Broughton, Bucks, who prevented the Google van from taking pictures of their homes."
Wow! In one paragraph Porter has managed to simultaneously accuse Google of childish immaturity and fiendishly calculating greed. No mention that Google is compelled to follow Chinese law if it wants to have business there, just as it is compelled to follow anti-terror legislation in the West, some of which he complains about today. And we will simply ignore the fact that very few people have complained about Street View, and most of us are actually enjoying a very nice service. By the way, where is the evidence that burglars are using Google Street View to plan their dastardly misdeeds? Why applaud the technophobes and their mob-rule, pitchfork-wielding mentality?

I know that I am coming across as a Google apologist, but it really upsets me that an innovative company that offers millions of users valuable services that define our current Internet experience gets such an unfair treatment. I am indeed bothered by Google's market dominance, but that is a regulatory argument that we will have to explore in the near future. However, Mr Porter makes a wrong-headed attack on the search engine giant that does not further the necessary debate that we should be having.

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Unknown said...

I agree with your responses. Maybe it's part of a larger problem of the need many people have for simple heuristic approaches to entities -- fatty foods are bad, vegetables are good, cats are bad, dogs are good, Google is...

The navigation of moral life is certainly easier if everything goes into one box or the other, but the truth loses out in the process.

Mathias Klang said...

Nice analysis. Google bashing is an important pastime since most users don't understand that it is a business and driven by economics - not altruism.

But I have a hard time understanding the fear of Google maps. The true integrity threat is the interconnection of Google services and its ability to collect and analyze personal data.

"Is Google an amoral monopoly?" Uhm, yes, what did you expect?

Sasha Mathews said...

I recommend VADLO Search Engine and its cartoons!

Anonymous said...

Amoral? No. Monopoly? Probably, but that is open to interpretation. Upon a little (and I do mean little) investigation, I found that Google controls about 72.1% of "Internet Information Providers" industry. Although antitrust laws do not lay out a strict level of market control that constitutes monopoly power, it has been found in previous cases that if a firm controls 70-80% of market capitalization for consecutive quarters then it may constitute government intervention. So yes it may very well be a monopoly, but then again it may not. Guess we will just have to wait and see!