Fear of a Google Planet

Should we fear Google? This question, unthinkable ten, maybe even five, years ago, seems to dominate internet policy discussion today. AT&T is afraid of Google Voice. Apple might be afraid of the Google Phone. Microsoft is afraid that Google Apps will make its Office suit redundant. These fears are justified, but they are also good. In most cases Googlephobia is a condition suffered by competitors. Google will probably kill off some competitors, but it will force many more to continue to innovate and provide better products to the consumer at lower prices. So, yes, some people should fear Google. But should we the public?

“Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised.” Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

In its pre-settlement incarnation, the Google Book Search (GBS) project was merely an astonishing attempt to build a comprehensive search engine to allow full text searching inside millions of books. The GBS envisaged in the Settlement (before the DOJ sent the parties back to the drawing-board) was much more ambitious. Not satisfied with digitization, indexing and limited display of books consistent with copyright law’s fair use doctrine, Google, the Authors Guild and a handful of publishers struck a deal which allowed for the commoditization of digital books as direct substitutes for paper copies. Subject to an opt-out and a few other exclusions, the Settlement swept in almost all books subject to U.S. copyrights and established an entirely new institutional framework for clearing digital book rights.

My personal view is that justified astonishment at the GBS Settlement has, in too many cases, given way to unjustified fear. Google is still far from being the new Microsoft as the Department of Justice’s Christine Varney has asserted. It certainly does not act like it. Google’s track record of openness and innovation are heartening and there is very little evidence so far that they plan on abandoning their “don’t be evil” corporate culture.

Googlephobia appears to be the foundation of some pretty wild assertions in the context of the Google Book dispute in particular. Google conceives that it is set to liberate out-of-print books from their dusty dungeons on the relatively inaccessible shelves of the worlds great libraries. Critics of the deal (and the initial more modest GBS) see plans for monopolization of hitherto non-existent markets, the destruction of libraries, universities and even the book itself.

The Google Book Settlement was not perfect, but my own fear is that Googlephobia and the intervention of the Department of Justice have left us worse off than we would have otherwise been. The Google skeptics are right about a number of the Settlement’s shortcomings, but now that the parties renegotiating the deal we had all better hope that GBS version 3 is better, fairer, and more accessible — not just smaller and less ambitious.

It might be naive to simply trust in Google, but the fear Google now inspires seems equally misplaced.

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Maybe it comes down to the simple issue of trusting a private business (especially one whose stock is publicly traded) to manage a public good for the benefit of the public, rather than for the benefit of its stockholders.

    I don’t see why that trust is deserved in the general case, especially absent appropriate regulation. And I see it all the less when the business in question is a poster child for jackpot venture-style capitalism. As for their ‘don’t be evil’ corporate culture, one could argue it was abandoned long ago (e.g., when they facilitated China’s censorship, or when they had their bots scan users’ gmails so they could provide content-sensitive ads); but even an angelic past for Google would not mitigate the issues around Google Book.

  2. Matthew Sag says:

    No one should seriously expect us to simply trust Google to do the right thing. Some regulation and antitrust action may even be appropriate. But policy interventions should not be driven by blind fear of Google’s size and dazzling innovation. That is my modest proposal for this blog entry.