Google: the Godzilla of the World Wide Web?

Tim Black reports from last Thursday’s spiked debate at the Royal Society of Arts, which asked: ‘Is Google too big?’

‘As far as I know it’s the internet.’ Tom Hyde, strategy director at the UK-based digital marketing company Profero, was talking about Google. He was also joking. Still, given the omnipresence of Google’s search engine, not to mention the prevalence of its other services, from gmail to Google Maps and Streetview, people could be forgiven for mistaking Google for the internet. Is this a problem? Is Google, through its dominance of search, just too big?

Hyde was speaking at an event organised by spiked last Thursday, hosted at the Royal Society of Arts in London, which addressed precisely this question: Is Google too big? Joining him on the panel were David Crow, associate editor of City AM newspaper, Dr Damian Tambini, a lecturer in media at the London School of Economics and associate fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Becket McGrath, a competition lawyer, and Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the online magazine The Register.

From the start, it was clear that some of the speakers were not necessarily opposed to Google. Hyde, for instance, was very positive. ‘All I can see as a consumer are really good, positive services’, he said. Tambini was keen to acknowledge the basis for Google’s success: ‘Putting aside the scare stories, Google is big because Google is good.’ And besides, is a near business monopoly really such a bad thing? As Orlowski pointed out, ‘a company can be the biggest company in the world and do no harm’.

Yet few now view Google as harmless. For instance, over the past few years, Google’s attitude to people’s privacy has been coming under increasing fire. Up until 2008, Google held search logs for every IP address for a period of 18 months. Following pressure from privacy campaigners, Google did agree to halve the amount of time it keeps IP addresses on its search server logs. Still, if the comments of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt are any indication, the company is far from contrite: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’ Little wonder that Google paid so little attention to privacy violations when taking photos of virtually every street in Europe and the US as part of its Streetview product.

It’s not just the company’s rather blasé attitude to people’s privacy that has attracted criticism. In February this year, price comparison site Foundem, online shopping site Ciao, and legal and solicitor services site ejustice.fr instigated a European Commission investigation into whether Google is guilty of ‘abuse of dominant position’ – that is, they’re accusing Google of manipulating search results in favour of its own products. Given Google’s virtual domination of search, if true this could deprive a lot of companies of a lot of business.

As David Crow pointed out at Thursday’s debate, whether it’s privacy violations or a possible breach of anti-trust/competition rules, Google does things which are bound to cause outrage, and yet it always acts shocked when people complain. ‘They are either incredibly naive’, Crow said, ‘or they are pretending to be’.

The reality of Google’s approach to business, disconcerting to those still enchanted by the image of Google as hippyish and playful, was something Orlowski was keen to focus on. ‘I used to be a quite regular visitor to Google in the days when it wasn’t so big and you could still get close to the founders and the founders’ mentors’, he said. ‘I’ve often found that Google people regard themselves to be the smartest guys in the room, much like Enron did, but they’re frequently the most un-empathetic people in the room, too, and the least sympathetic. And still after years of writing about Google, I can’t work out whether they’re high-spectrum autistic or whether it’s something more premeditated. Either way, it’s often the unintended consequences of people’s actions that we have to live with.’ Orlwoski cited his colleague from The Register and expert on Google, Cade Metz, who likened Google to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: a company blissfully unaware of the consequences of its actions.

There is too much focus on the myth of Google and not enough focus on what it is actually doing, Orlowski continued. Echoing an argument he made in his contribution to spiked’s series of pre-debate articles, Orlowski said there are two key aspects to Google’s actual business strategy: the first is to ensure, via lobbying for a neutral internet, that neither the ISPs nor telecom companies make money from the internet’s pipelines; the second is to undermine copyright. This, Orlowski argued, is because, around six or seven years ago, Google placed a bet on what the internet would look like in the future. It would consist of large data centres with bits of data travelling long distances between these data centres, with the value of the material passing between being accrued by Google. So in terms of copyright, Google almost becomes a collection society – the only digital collection society that’s viable. ‘We can see this already with Google Books where it’s already set up a monopoly registration. No one else can make money except Google’, said Orlowski.

And how has it been able to do this? ‘Because the middle classes have taken a huge punt on copyright – it’s almost axiomatic on the left to say that it is evil.’ Political discussion about what the future of the internet should be like is given a pass on all sides, Orlowski concluded, by politicians and those who should be coming to the aid of creators.

Which almost sounded like a call for the regulators to step in. But, as Damian Tambini pointed out, there’s considerable doubt as to whether ‘the [existing] regulatory frameworks are fit for purpose’. For instance, the Data Protection Act is meant to protect people from the sharing of private information between companies, not, as with Google’s potentially cross-referencing suite of services (email, documents, search etc), within companies. Moreover, as Becket McGrath pointed out, when it comes to the so-called abuse of dominant power charge, ‘proving the allegations to the requisite legal standard will be increasingly difficult’.

Yet is tighter, newly-drawn-up regulation of the IT sector really necessary? McGrath suggested that because tech markets are subject to rapid change due to innovation, ‘the potential of Schumpeter’s winds of creative destruction to wipe the slate clean from time to time means that we should be less concerned about the potential for enduring monopoly in such markets’.

And there’s the rub. Despite the hi-tech lustre, is the IT sector really infused by innovation? Speaking from the floor, Nico Macdonald, a contributor to Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation, suggested that Google is not the problem, ‘it’s the lack of big newcomers to challenge it’. The perception of Google’s sheer size, the sense of its power, testifies not so much to Google’s own dynamism as it does to the lack of dynamism elsewhere. ‘We see Google as so powerful’, Macdonald concluded, ‘because there’s so little innovation in general’.

A full audio recording of the event can be downloaded here.

What do YOU think? Read the contributions to spiked’s online debate about Google here and email us your thoughts by clicking here.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

David Crow called Google a company of contradictions. Jason Walsh asked if Google was an anti-capitalist scapegoat? Simon Davies warned that Google might steer us to a ‘privacy Chernobyl’. Andrew Orlowski said we’re all in Google’s crossfire. Rob Killick called Google a frenemy of the internet generation. Or read more at the spiked debate page Has Google got too big?.

 

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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