In case you haven’t noticed Google has become a significant player in how we live our lives from one day to the next. Whether it’s Google search, Google Chrome, Google talk, Gmail, Google maps, YouTube, Google books, Google scholar or Android OS – you can add Google+ to that list if you are a Google employee – at some point, Google has taken control over how people interact with the mysterious universe of the World Wide Web. The frightening thought is that, at no point did we as a society stop to think about the implications of giving one company so much control over the internet – a public “good” – and over information in general.
Why is this bad and who cares?
But Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil” you say. Sure. This is the company’s unofficial motto on which the founders – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – based its code of conduct. In 2006, Google even took action against a bill that was being voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives that gave phone and cable companies greater powers, stating, “Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access.”
Google’s code of conduct is also a product of what one of Google’s founders has seen and experienced living in the Soviet Union until he was six; seriously Mr. Brin? When the time came however, none of that stopped them from investing in China and submitting to the iron fist that is China’s great firewall, meaning that when you Googled Tiananmen Square in China, you got images of a lovely rosy square rather than the famous man versus tank rendition that we all know. In fact, China has also hacked into the Gmail accounts of Chinese activists and Senior U.S. government officials – one can only wonder what they did with this information. The fact is that people trusted Google to protect their information. Google failed them. Why should the rest of us trust them?
Fine, I’m a hippy conspiracy theorist who is living in the past and doesn’t want to embrace the future and I’ll even let the tin foil helmet joke run. Forget about privacy and forget about principles for a few minutes and humour a more pragmatic argument. Remember Microsoft? That company with roughly 90% share of the desktop operating system market? How much have you paid for the latest version of Windows or Microsoft Office? Another good example of a future where one company reigns supreme is the diamond industry, controlled by the illustrious family of companies that is DeBeers. The engagement ring originated in Ancient Egypt as a symbol of a never ending cycle; later, the Romans wore betrothal rings made of iron. At what point did diamonds become part of that equation? The diamond ring has become so prolific around the world that now there are rules governing how much you should pay for one in multiples of your monthly salary. How did that start? Clever marketing. How did it become so expensive despite the fact that diamonds aren’t that rare anymore? Monopoly.
What happens if Google decides to start charging us for the use of its services, after we let it grow large enough that it overpowers all the competition or when they can no longer make enough money as we become even more desensitised to online advertising? What happens if Google Android and the new Google Laptop and its operating system become the standard for communicating with the world? How much can they charge for them then? Yes, this is a distant future, but with deep pockets like Google’s, nothing is impossible. In fact, it is very possible that this is Google’s long-term strategy; to become the only “middleman” between us and the internet. When and if that does occur, what happens when the patron saints of Google move on or die, leaving the vast empire that is Google under the authority of someone who may not share their “do no evil” ideology?
If you’ve taken any introductory Economics class, you should know that for consumers, monopolies are bad and competition is good. Without much jargon, monopolists have a tendency to take advantage of consumers: when a company knows that consumers have no choice but to use their services, it’s only natural that they will extract as much profit as possible from them. On the other hand, competition keeps companies in-line and makes it difficult for any one company to overpower consumers. The key word here is “choice”. Choice is having the option to opt out. But what happens when no company is able to compete with Google anymore and that option disappears? What happens when everything we see or do over the internet is through Google? Who knows? The real question is, should we wait to find out and hope for the best, or should we act now to make sure that this never happens?
So what now?
We should certainly be worried about our privacy and about the protection of our information, but to a larger extent this is an issue of being prepared for the eventuality of one firm having monopoly power over a resource that has become a significant part of how our world works. A good first step would be a new global competition policy that would protect consumers from the Google sprawl. Perhaps even curtailing the extent to which Google can integrate their various products; much like what the European Commission did when Microsoft was integrating Internet Explorer with Windows. Making sure that Google alone is not responsible for protecting the vast amounts of information it stores is another important move. Finally, we must ensure that the vast resources of the internet remain accessible in ways other than through Google and in no way should that principle be compromised. The stakes are high. We must be prepared for the day when Google becomes the internet.