Google, in its mission, famously aspires to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But a mission is a mission, not a modus operandi. Examining what Google does, rather than what it aims to do, reveals the surprisingly conservative role it actually plays in the world.
In principle Google imagines itself a progressive, even revolutionary, organization, which through information technology brings about change, specifically change in line with liberal democratic freedom. The ideas of cyber-utopianism – that certain technologies are liberating in a particular kind of way, and should be deployed to achieve those ends – constitute the conceptual foundation upon which the public myth of Google rests.
In practice Google behaves much more conservatively. By this I do not mean that it has a particular reactionary political or social agenda. Instead, I mean that Google generally respects rather than repudiates traditions and institutions, takes the “is” as the “ought”, and by doing so perpetuates and legitimates the existing order in a given context despite (and often at the immediate expense of) its mission.
Often this conservatism manifests through the simple everyday practices of its engineers. Earlier this semester I attended a talk by a lead developer for Google Products who described the technical challenges of running a shopping aggregator online. Afterwards a student raised his hand. He was from Wyoming, he said, and he had long relied on Google Products to buy guns and ammunition. However, since May, Google had prevented him from doing so, despite the fact that he was legally licensed to own and operate them. How and why did Google make that decision?
The engineer explained, with a matter-of-fact air, that Google didn’t want to sell anyone anything which they may not be legally be able to have in their locale. Their guidelines were not only law, but policy: specifically advertising policy. If AdWords wouldn’t advertise it in a given location, then Google wouldn’t sell it there.
Judging by this statement our engineer seems to think of law and policy much like he thinks of coding libraries: neutral tools, facts, and standards which he can import and reference to do work for him. After all, why should he reinvent geographically specific distribution limitations any more than he should reinvent the while loop? This rationale is perfectly reasonable, profoundly conservative, and conceals messy regulations behind clean code.
Sometimes Google articulates its support for order, as when it began blocking ThePirateBay from appearing as prominently in search. A Google spokesperson defended the move technocratically, saying that “this measure is one of several that we have implemented to curb copyright infringement online.” No longer does Google present Search as an impartial exercise of algorithmic objectivism (query, pilgrim, and the truth shall be revealed). Instead, having embraced an editorial intermediary role, Google submits to, reproduces, and further legitimates the dominant legal and cultural paradigms.
Some may see this as Google simply abiding by the law. That may be so. My point is it’s hard to reconcile such a method with the Google mission. Whereas Google’s mission is progressive and empowering (it will universally distribute the tools of information so the people may do what they will), Google’s practice is conservative and paternalistic (…unless you might do something unacceptable, in which case you’re out of luck).
In the gap between Google’s principles and practice we find again the answer to the question posed by Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith in Who Controls the Internet? As Wu and Goldsmith argued in 2006, early cyber-utopians such as Johnson & Post and John Perry Barlow were admirably aspirational but ultimately incorrect in their belief that, as Johnson and Post put it, the Internet would be “[separated from] doctrine tied to territorial jurisdictions [such that] new rules will emerge.”
Instead the precise opposite has occurred. Whatever its transformative effects may be, the Internet has not broken down the walls of country, culture, and law. To the contrary, it has been subjected to their inexorable emergence into a new medium. To borrow terms from Evgeny Morozov, this “realist” or “agnostic”, rather than utopian, understanding is the one borne out by what Google actually does. One need look no further than Google’s decision to block “Innocence of Muslims” from YouTube in Libya and Egypt after the recent embassy attacks. The complex and potentially life-altering geopolitical considerations which led to that unusual move may have been reasonable, understandable, even “good”, but above all shrewdly realist, not idealist, in character.
I don’t mean this essay as an attack on Google. I think Google is generally run by smart, well-intentioned people operating under incredibly difficult real-world constraints. My purpose is rather to reveal how Google understands and interacts with those constraints and what the sociopolitical effects of those interactions might be. The answer, unfortunately, seems likely to disappoint anyone still hoping for a truly liberating information revolution to emanate magically from from the wizards of Mountain View.
This article about the implications of Google+ came across my desk today. It’s a quick post discussing the potential implications of Google+ for higher ed recruitment – whether or not you could (or should) Hangout with prospective students, etc.
It’s a good article, but it’s also premature.
The thing about Google+ is it isn’t a thing yet. By that intentionally inarticulate statement I mean we don’t yet know what the norms and expectations of Google+ are.
Norms and expectations of sites are always changing. What Facebook was in 2006 is very different (for
better or for worse) than what it is in 2011. And it’s always a moving target.
But at least with Facebook, if you have the faintest idea of what you are talking about (which admittedly many don’t) you can only be so wrong. You can only be so far ahead or behind of a known target.
Not so with Google+.
You might look at Google+ and say “well, it’s just like Facebook, except that it’s got a slightly different privacy architecture, and it’s also just like Twitter, except the asymmetrical following has a different social substrate, and it’s just like Skype, so none of this is really new, they’re just all in the same place now.”
This argument is alluring. It’s also wrong. When all of these admitted analogues are in the same space it’s an entirely different dynamic. A jewelry store, a Burger King, and a Hot Topic are all distinct social spaces. Together, they’re a mall. And the sociology of a mall is not the sum of the sociologies of its stores. It’s something else entirely.
The same argument was made about Facebook in its early days (oh, it’s just photos + messageboards + email). It was wrong then. And it’s wrong now about Google+ – and it’s wrong exponentially. Facebook was a service built atop a combination of popular web standards. And Google+ is a combination of those services.
Google+ may yet flop. But I don’t think it matters if it does. It’s the first well-designed combination of all of these services. Whether or not it “kills Facebook”, it’s worthy of study and interesting on its own. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a change in the social media field. It’s going to be incredible to watch.
So I haven’t had an invite to Google+ go through yet, partially because of demand, partially because I think folks have been inviting me with my GApps account and Google+ isn’t compatible with that from what I see. But a lot of my friends have it, and have been talking about it on Facebook (very meta).
Before I go making any grand statements, I realize that my experience is limited and defined by my friends – specifically, my affinity group tends to overrepresent tech-savvy early-adopters.
Still, I’ve been stunned by the response to Google+. Seems like half of my friends already have it and are glowing about how great it is, and the other half desperately want in because they have been looking to leave Facebook.
My best friend Shane, like everyone else in our generation, was a ferocious Facebook user at first. But once things began getting icky three or four years ago, he changed his profile to this:
It’s still early, but I’m beginning to wonder if that alternative has finally arrived.
Computerworld, on Google+:
However, what Google hopes will set its social network apart from Facebook and the smaller social networking services is that Google+ is set up to allow users to communicate within separate groups of their online friends. Instead of posting an update that goes out to everyone, Google+ enables users to create “circles” or groups, such as a user’s poker buddies, college friends, work colleagues and family members.
Now a user can communicate separately with each group.
“The “circles” idea makes a lot of sense,” said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. “It’s smart, and while you can do something similar in Facebook, it’s not Facebook’s main thing. It’s not as easy to do.”
You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle. Circles makes it easy to put your friends from Saturday night in one circle, your parents in another, and your boss in a circle by himself, just like real life.
e: from the Times:
“In real life, we have walls and windows and I can speak to you knowing who’s in the room, but in the online world, you get to a ‘Share’ box and you share with the whole world,” said Bradley Horowitz, a vice president of product management at Google who is leading the company’s social efforts with Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president of engineering.
Architecture metaphors and everything!
Grimmelmann is totally correct in the main thrust of his post:
I would like to say, though, that this secretly negotiated private “deal” is a terrible, terrible blunder on Google’s part, considered purely from the perspective of its own self-interest. Google has enjoyed a generally good relationship with many activists and civil society groups who want to protect individual freedoms online. Even if what Google is now proposing is good policy, the backroom nature of the process sends an unmistakable message to Google’s erstwhile allies: we’re with you only as long as it’s convenient for us.
and other good stuff besides.
That said it bears noting that while Grimmelmann begins his post with:
The Verizon-Google Net neutrality deal is now public. In brief: neutrality for Plain Old Internet, transparency but not neutrality for wireless, and nothing for “Additional Online Services” unless they “threaten the availability” of POI.
it may actually be a bit more complicated than that, as the actual framework appears to leave quite a bit of wiggle room.
Non-Discrimination Requirement: In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.
Network Management: Broadband Internet access service providers are permitted to engage in reasonable network management. Reasonable network management includes any technically sound practice: to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network; to ensure network security or integrity; to address traffic that is unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider’s network, or the Internet; to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices; that is consistent with the technical requirements, standards, or best practices adopted by an independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiative or standard-setting organization; to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic, based on latency; or otherwise to manage the daily operation of its network.
Additional Online Services: A provider that offers a broadband Internet access service complying with the above principles could offer any other additional or differentiated services. Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization.
I would never seek to second-guess Grimmelmann’s read of the law here, and if he thinks this is still a fundamental neutrality policy, I believe him. But though this framework isn’t quite a tiered Internet, it isn’t exactly a flat neutrality policy either, at least of the kind, say, Tim Wu would advocate.
The overall theme of the presentation was consistent: we have multiple groups and within those groups there are individuals who we have strong ties with and many more who we have weak ties with. There are also even temporary ties, like the person at the restaurant who served you food last night. While getting the system right on this is extremely difficult, the strong vs. weak ties is something that Facebook has yet to enable users to control.
If Paul Adams’ presentation is accepted as one of the primary perspectives of Google on social, perhaps the argument for Google’s new “Facebook killer” would be that there needs to be a more effective user-interface (UI) which helps users to control these various groups. Rather than dismissing it as a service for “advanced” users, perhaps the interface has simply not evolved far enough to give users the actual control that they want.
That would support the argument presented by Paul Adams in the slide below which states “If your privacy practices aren’t transparent, then you introduce doubt. Doubt leads to lower usage.” Only Facebook knows how great of an impact the latest privacy fiasco had on the company but it’s clear that Google sees this as a weakness.
If this is true, then Google has precisely the right privacy perspective to outflank Facebook on this issue. And they’re about the only company with the muscle to do it.
My blog is getting a lot of traffic right now from people Googling for YourOpenBook.org. If you’re one of these folks:
Best of luck!
(Apologies for the alliteration. The sad truth is that I once attended a session at the NEYWC run by a senior Sports Illustrated editor. When he reviewed my journalism samples he told me that, whatever other weaknesses my style might have, it was refreshing free of the tropes that had haunted his early writing, mainly alliteration, bad puns, and catchy clauses jammed into sentences where they didn’t belong. He then gave me a sample of that bad writing so as to not emulate it. And I’ve been writing like that ever since).
Except, in this case, the individual was Andrew McLaughlin, i.e. the Deputy Head of Internet Policy for the White House and former Head of Global Public Policy for Google itself.
Maybe Mr. McLaughlin needs to read Grimmelmann’s Privacy as Product Safety so he can get to regulating his former employer!
edit: immediately after hitting submit I saw this blog post from Google Public Policy about the changes they made to Buzz. Good. But not good enough.