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From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Our enthusiastic embrace of the electronic resources that give us information, communication and community, all at lightning speed and with press-button ease, has changed the world. It changes governments too, as the contemporary Middle East shows. The rising curve of developments in this electronic wizardry has grown breathtakingly steeper in the last two decades, showing no sign of leveling out.
At the forefront of some of these vertiginous developments is Google, a name so iconic that it has become a verb. If you google "Google" you get over 6 billion results (Yahoo gets 4 billion, Microsoft's Bing 250 million, Lycos 25 million, Altavista 16 million. You get the point: Google is way out ahead). The question is: is the googlization of everything a uniformly good thing, or should we worry? The answer, according to media expert and professor Siva Vaidhyanathan in his The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry: Yes, we should worry.
His chief reason is that Google is an advertising business, which uses its information services as a way of getting saleable information in return. It offers free access to information so that it can profile the people searching for that information, and then auction space to advertisers targeted at their profiles.
It is an ingenious business model, but, among other consequences, it raises for searchers the question whether Google's ranking of information is an accurate reflection of the information's reliability and utility. As Vaidhyanathan points out, Google has convinced us that we should trust it implicitly; most people rarely click past the first three results it offers. "This means," he writes, "that Google, the most flexible yet powerful information filter we use regularly, could come to exercise inordinate influence over our decisions and values." Control knowledge, and you control people: Google would not be the first to realize the significance of that truth.
Moreover, the localization of advertising means that Google does not pass on information about the world at large but what interests locally, the kind nearby advertisers would prefer us to have so that we can shop with them. Thus Google becomes, says Vaidhyanathan, "more about shopping than learning."
Vaidhyanathan was prompted to examine "googlization" -- having our information processed through Google's systems and algorithms before we get it -- because when Google began scanning millions of books in 2004 to create a vast digitized library, he saw two problems: that the aim of Google Books and its eBooks platform was in fact not to create a library but a bookstore, and secondly that it was interested in accumulating a vast body of text that it could mine for the development of search techniques.
Vaidhyanathan admires the innovations promised by the latter aim, but what he is not so sure about is the increased hold it gives Google over how its users view the world.
The most recent development in lawsuits initiated by publishers and authors against Google's books digitization plan was a decision this month (March 2011) by a court in New York, applauded by the U.S. Department of Justice, that the settlement Google offered to publishers and authors "would," in the words of judge Denny Chin, "give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission." It would also gain Google the profits from "orphan works" whose copyright holders cannot be located. For now, anyway, the Googlization of our access to books has been hampered. But although this issue is what got Vaidhyanathan started, it is not his only concern.
Note first that Vaidhyanathan has not written a diatribe against Google itself, a company he admires for many reasons despite also having questions about it. Instead the book is about "googlization," that is, the development of reliance by internet users on major search service providers -- Google being the most major -- who, because of their control of the process, have an influence over information that could be distorting or even, potentially and if it fell into the wrong hands, malign.
Vaidhyanathan's anxieties are being exacerbated by the increasing pressure Google is itself feeling from competitors in certain sectors, principally Facebook and Apple, with consumer attention switching to mobile devices which are locked-down to their providers. This is very different from the radically open Web model that Google took its start from. Every minute you spend on iPhone away from the Web means that Google can't harvest the information you are giving away about yourself on it. Facebook competes directly with Google for advertising and is making huge strides. Of course, Google is changing in response: going mobile, and at the same time, in reaction to Facebook, seeking to be more current and relevant by privileging recent information over older information -- and thus again distorting the value of the information it ranks.
Note the concern here: that because information runs through the decision algorithms of the Google system we cannot regard its handling of information as ideal or even merely neutral, but only as a product of the algorithm's workings. And because it is profiling our identities and interests, our prejudices and desires, it is tailoring information to us, just as it is auctioning space to advertisers with something specific to sell us because of our profiles.
One big thing someone could say on Google's behalf is that it stepped into a void and provided an invaluable service to the world. There was no really effective way of finding information on the Internet until Google created it, remedying a market failure and reaping the just reward for doing so. Should we not clap our hands instead of wringing them?
Vaidhyanathan's reply is that Google is filling too much of a gap, a gap that state institutions should fill. It would, he says -- and surely rightly -- be a fabulous investment for the world and its future if governments got together and financed the building of a global digital library open to all. Only imagine if there were a truly public, independent, and neutral search engine for all information, ranking it purely on reliability and usefulness. That would be a resource for mankind worthy of the name.
Google has used its "sterling reputation" to argue that it can provide this and associated services faster, cheaper, and better than public bodies can.
Vaidhyanathan disagrees, arguing that Google's pre-eminence in the market has undermined what should be genuinely public responsibilities to provide public goods. This is not, Vaidhyanathan is careful to insist, to say that Google is evil -- far from it; but it is also not the White Knight of popular imagination either. It is a business, seeking a profit, driven by the profit motive; it is not a public service institution. The perception of it as an altruistic and benevolent organization was created by its users, not itself. The motto "Don't be evil" has never been part of its public face, Vaidhyanathan says; it was we the users who wished it to succeed because we applauded those aspects of it that were genuinely applaudable -- the commitment to openness, fraternity, little or no control or censorship, open code, the democratic process of lots of people building amazing facilities for the Web. Google opposed the world domination of Microsoft, which never pretended to be anything but a for-profit institution, opposing open-source and code-making anarchy. Google was the good guy, and it succeeded: David contested Goliath, and became another Goliath by doing so.
Google both spread and benefitted from goodwill in this way. The company's founders say that they began with principles and are not going to violate them. But, says Vaidhyanathan, the sheer scope of Google and its proliferation into many new areas has produced frictions and contradictions. He gives the example of the run on United Airlines stock that resulted from a trifling error, the absence of metadata on a web page giving the date of a report. Someone saw on Google an old report that UA was seeking bankruptcy protection, and thought it was new information. An alert flashed out, holders of UA stock began selling it as quickly as possible, and the share price tanked. So did that of other airlines, because (typically for the stock markets) panic selling spread like an infection before the mistake was detected. When Bloomberg issued a correction the stock prices rallied, but not before a lot of money was lost. Trust in Google, Vaidhyanathan says, prevented people from checking the facts before the damage was done -- and the example is illustrative of the potential for damage.
One of the most interesting points Vaidhyanathan makes concerns the levels of responsibility that Google bears for the content it offers us, from lowest to highest across three types of function: scanning and linking, hosting and serving, and scanning and serving. To understand this, remember that there is content that not everyone wishes to have accessed, such as pornography, copyright infringements, and privacy invasions. If Google keeps such content available beyond a certain tolerance limit, it opens itself to backlash or even prosecution.
Its lowest level of responsibility relates to content that other people create, which it simply copies and posts for its own index. It neither solicits nor prohibits it, neither buys nor profits from it. It makes no editorial input, it just indexes it and makes it available. Google is not responsible for what other people put on the net.
The next level of Google's responsibility is for what it "hosts and serves." Here Google makes other people's content available on its facilities, obviously enough benefitting from the profiles it harvests and the advertising space it can accordingly sell on its facilities.
In "scanning and serving" Google has the greatest responsibility. It digitizes things that were not hitherto digitized, and makes them available. Examples are Google Maps, Google Street View, and Google Books. Google here makes the decision about what is worthwhile to scan and serve. People can complain -- for example, about what appears on Google's street view service -- but it can take weeks for content to be removed, and by then it will probably have been copied and disseminated many times over. As Vaidhyanathan puts it, this involves a bad assumption on Google's part to the effect that everything is up for grabs and can only be challenged and removed post facto. This wrongly sets the default at the lowest possible standard.
This naturally leads Vaidhyanathan to ask whether there should be regulation. On this he is agnostic, pointing out that there is already some degree of regulation in the form of copyright laws, but that matters would be improved if we did not have to trust that a company like Google will not abuse its position, but will allow users to search in a fair and uncorrupted way. Now, Google does not (though many think it does otherwise) take money to put links high in web searches. Search providers might one day not be so ethical. But in making editorial decisions about what is worthwhile, and in now claiming to prefer "high quality sites" over "low quality sites" (are they always able to tell which is which?) they are taking sole responsibility for value decisions of considerable moment.
A problem here is that Google's search algorithms are a commercial secret, so the chance of a transparent audit of how they make those decisions is slim. What standards does Google use? If it only follows my previously manifested desires, it is not going to give me the information that would most be of use to me.
I am with Vaidhyanathan in wishing to see a Human Knowledge Project set up, a fifty-year goal to create a global digital library and information resource that every child anywhere in the world can tap into. The technology exists, but not the political will, says Vaidhyanathan, even though the advantage of a non-profit humanitarian resource has so much going for it that it is surprising that such a project is not already well under way.
Perhaps the lack of political will has something to do with how many governments do not want their people to know too much or be able to find out too much. Here is a chicken and egg situation: do we have to wait for the world to be civilized enough for a Human Knowledge Project to become feasible, or would it only become civilized enough if such a Project existed? I suspect the latter: and therefore think that all those who are interested should put their shoulders to the wheel and create it. That would be a true search for knowledge, and the most liberating thing we could ever do.
RENDER UNTO CAESAR
HOW GOOGLE CAME TO RULE THE WEB
Google dominates the World Wide Web. There was never an election to determine the Web's rulers. No state appointed Google its proxy, its proconsul, or its viceroy. Google just stepped into the void when no other authority was willing or able to make the Web stable, usable, and trustworthy. This was a quite necessary step at the time. The question is whether Google's dominance is the best situation for the future of our information ecosystem.
In the early days it was easy to assume that the Web, and the Internet of which the Web is a part, was ungoverned and ungovernable. It was supposed to be a perfect libertarian space, free and open to all voices, unconstrained by the conventions and norms of the real world, and certainly beyond the scope of traditional powers of the state. But we now know that the Internet is not as wild and ungoverned as we might have naively assumed back at its conception. Not only does law matter online, but the specifics of the Internet's design, or "architecture," influence how the Web works and how people behave with it. Like Jessica Rabbit in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Internet is not bad—it's just drawn that way. Still, architecture and state-generated law govern imperfectly. In the People's Republic of China, the state clearly runs the Web. In Russia, no one does. States such as Germany, France, Italy, and Brazil have found some ways to govern over and above Google's influence. But overall, no single state, firm, or institution in the world has as much power over Web-based activity as Google does.
So Google, which rules by the power of convenience, comfort, and trust, has assumed control, much as Julius Caesar did in Rome in 48 B.C. Before Caesar, there was a state of chaos and civil war. Rome was presided over by weak, ineffective leaders who failed to capture the support of the people or to make the city livable. Like Caesar, Google has found its mandate to rule through vast popular support, even in the absence of a referendum. And like Caesar's, Google's appeal is almost divine. Because we focus so much on the miracles of Google, we are too often blind to the ways in which Google exerts control over its domain.
So how, exactly, does Google rule the Web? Through its power to determine which sites get noticed, and thus trafficked, Google has molded certain standards into the Web. Google has always tended to degrade the status of pornography sites in response to generic or confusing search terms, thus making it less likely that one will stumble on explicit images while rarely blocking access to such sites entirely. Google has ensured that the Web is a calmer, friendlier, less controversial and frightening medium—as long as one uses Google to navigate it.
Through its advertising auction program, Google favors and rewards firms that create sites that meet explicit quality standards set by Google, such as simple pages that load quickly, lack of flashy animation, and coherence in search terms that helps ensure users are not tricked into clicking on a pornography site when seeking travel advice. Google has limited access to sites that place malicious programs on users' computers. This fight against "malware" is one of the keys to keeping the Web worthy of users' trust and time. If too many sites infected users' computers with harmful software, people would gravitate away from the relatively free and open Web into restricted and protected domains, known as "walled gardens" or "gated communities," that seem less vulnerable to electronic pandemics. Google also, extremely rarely, directly censors search results when they are troublesome or politically controversial, or when the company determines that a firm or group is trying to rig the system to favor its site. When that happens, Google usually places some sort of explanation in the search results to explain and justify the policy.
Overall, these policies have the effect of cleaning up the Web, ensuring that most users have a comfortable experience most of the time. Google can usually achieve this goal without stooping to raw censorship. The net effect is the same, however, because the protections that we rely on, including "safe search," are turned on by default when we first access Google, and our habits (trust, inertia, impatience) keep us from clicking past the first page of search results. Google understands the fact that default settings can work just as well as coercive technologies. Overall, Google orders our behavior and orders the Web without raising concerns that it is overbearing. It's a brilliant trick.
Nothing about this means that Google's rule is as brutal and dictatorial as Caesar's. Nor does it mean that we should plot an assassination, as killing off Google might have the same effect on the state of the Web as Julius Caesar's death had on Rome: a return to unbearable chaos and fractured alliances. In fact, the institutions waiting in the wings to assume governance of the Web, such as commercial telecommunication companies and media conglomerates, are definitely less trustworthy than Google is today. In many ways, we should be grateful that Google governs so well. Google has made Web commerce and communication stable, dependable, and comfortable. By hiding how it does all this behind its simple and clear interface, Google convinces us that it just knows how to make our lives better. We need not worry about the messy details.
But how did we get to this state of affairs? How was Google able to assume this role so quietly and profit so handsomely from it? What sorts of trouble is Google causing for states and firms? And how—if at all—should we consider regulating the regulator?
THE SCOPE OF GOOGLE
Google is sui generis. At its core, it's a Web search-engine service. The primary reason anyone uses Google is to manage the torrent of information available on the World Wide Web. But as the most successful supplier of Web-based advertising, Google is now an advertising company first and foremost. Its search function is why we visit Google. Advertising is what keeps it going. However, there were search-engine companies before Google, and several competitors still do just as good a job linking people to information as Google does. And there were Web advertising companies before Google, just as there are now other firms, such as Facebook, that try to link a user's expressed interest in subjects to potential vendors of goods and services that reflect those tastes. But there has never been a company with explicit ambitions to connect individual minds with information on a global—in fact universal—scale. The scope of Google's mission sets it apart from any company that has ever existed in any medium. This fact alone means we must take it seriously.
Google has expanded in recent years into a general media company because it delivers video and text to users, even if much of that content is hosted on other institutions' sites. Its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, the clear leader in hosting short videos contributed by users, made Google a powerful disseminator of video content. This role has put Google and YouTube at the center of major world events, such as the antigovernment protests in Iran in the summer of 2009 and the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008.
Since about 2002 Google has steadily added to the roles it plays in people's lives, thus complicating the Web's taxonomy. It now hosts e-mail for millions of users. Google purchased the innovative and free blog-hosting service Blogger in 2003. It runs a social networking site called Orkut that is popular in Brazil and India, but nowhere else. Google Voice offers a voice-over-Internet-provider (VoIP) that competes with Skype's long-distance Internet phone service. It facilitates payment for Web-based commerce through Google Checkout.
Google is also a software company. It now offers online software such as a word processor, spreadsheets, presentation software, and a calendar service—all operating "in the cloud" and thus freeing users from managing multiple versions of their files and applications on different computers, and easing collaboration with others. In 2008 Google released its own Web browser called Chrome, despite many years of collaborating with the Mozilla foundation in supporting the open-source Firefox browser. And in 2009 it previewed its Chrome operating system for cloud computing, a direct assault on Microsoft's core product, Windows. It hosts health records online. On top of all that, since its beginning in 2004, its Google Books project has scanned millions and millions of volumes and has made many of them available online at no cost, simultaneously appropriating the functions of libraries on the one hand and the rights of publishers on the other. In 2007 Google announced plans for a mobile-phone operating system and attempted, but failed, to change the ways that the United States government allocates radio bandwidth to mobile companies in an attempt to open up competition and improve service. And since 2005 the company has been Googlizing the real world through Google Maps, Street View, and Google Earth, a service that allows users to manipulate satellite images to explore the Earth from above. Only one company does all that, so it does not even need a label beyond its increasingly pervasive brand name.
This diversity of enterprises has confused and confounded other firms that compete with Google. Because no other company, not even Microsoft, competes in more than a handful of these areas, it's also hard for regulators to get a sense of Google's market power. In most of these arenas, such as e-mail, applications, blogging, photo-image hosting, health records, and mobile-phone platforms, Google is far from the dominant player. But in online video, out-of-print book searches, online advertising, and of course Web search, Google has such an overwhelming lead that other competitors can't hope to develop the infrastructure needed to compete with Google in the long run.
Google thus has been the victor in the winner-take-all race to serve as the chief utility for the World Wide Web. In 2010, in the midst of a massive two-year economic downturn that hampered every sector of the global economy and devastated some, Google was worth more than US$120 billion and made more than US$4 billion in total net income. More than twenty thousand people worked for Google in 2010, although the company shed a few thousand through layoffs in 2008.
Because of its presence in a broad array of markets and its brazen unpredictability, many established industry players have taken aim at Google and have demanded either regulatory intervention to pressure Google or regulatory relief for themselves. When Google in 2007 made a strong case to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that newly released radio spectra should be licensed only to firms that promised openness in mobile-phone design and business practice, the major American telecommunication companies banded together to stifle and limit the proposal. When Google proposed collaborating with Yahoo in online advertising placement, U.S. regulators quickly squelched the plan because advertisers feared total market domination by the two companies, which would hold 90 percent of the search market in the United States. When Google moved to purchase the leading placement service for website banner advertisements, DoubleClick, national advertising companies demanded intervention—unsuccessfully. When Google refused to prevent YouTube users from potentially infringing copyrights and instead relied on the provisions of copyright law that protect service providers such as Google from liability, Viacom sued in a naked attempt to change the law. And when telecommunication companies that act as Internet service providers tried to alter how the Internet works by charging fees to services that might wish to have their content delivered faster—and thus downgrade service for those that didn't pay—Google lobbied to preserve "network neutrality." Google thus has made many powerful enemies in a very short period. Many of Google's positions correspond roughly with the public interest (such as giving empty support to a network neutrality policy and "safe-harbor" exemptions from copyright liability). Others, such as fighting against stronger privacy laws in the United States, do not.
When confronted with questions about its dominance in certain markets, Google officials always protest that, on the Internet, barriers to entry are low, and thus any young firm with innovative services could displace Google the way Google displaced Yahoo and AltaVista in the early days of the twenty-first century. With Google unable or unwilling to leverage its advantages though some sort of lockdown, such as holding users' content and data hostage with technology or exclusive contracts so that they must continue to use Google services, they point out that users could easily migrate to the next Google-like company. As Google's lawyer Dana Wagner says, "Competition is a click away."
Of course, that argument relies on the myth that Internet companies are weightless and virtual. It might be valid if Google were merely a collection of smart people and elegant computer code. Instead, Google is also a monumental collection of physical sites such as research labs, server farms, data networks, and sales offices. Replicating the vastness of Google's processing power and server space is unimaginable for any technology company except Microsoft. Wagner's argument about user behavior could be valid if boycotting or migrating from Google did not incur significant downgrades in service by losing the advantages of integration with other Google services.
Google's argument also ignores the "network effect" in communication markets: a service increases in value as more people use it. A telephone that is connected to only one other person has very limited value compared with one connected to 250 million people. YouTube is more valuable as a video platform because it attracts more contributors and viewers than any other comparable service. The more users it attracts, the more value each user derives from using it, and thus the more users it continues to attract. Network effects tend toward standardization and thus potential monopoly.
The network effect for most of Google's services is not the same exponential effect we saw with the proliferation of the telephone or fax machine. If only one person in the world used Gmail, it would still be valuable to her, because it can work well with every other standard e-mail interface. But if only a few people used Google for Web searching, Google would not have the data it needs to improve the search experience. Google is better because it's bigger, and it's bigger because it's better. This is an arithmetic, rather than geometric, network effect, but it matters nonetheless. Opting out or switching away from Google services degrades one's ability to use the Web.
It may seem as if I'm arguing that Google is a monopoly and needs to be treated as such, broken up using the antimonopoly legislation and regulations developed over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But because Google is sui generis, business competition and regulation demand fresh thinking. It's such a new phenomenon that old metaphors and precedents don't fit the challenges the company presents to competitors and users. So far, Google manages us much better than we manage Google. Just because Wagner's defense of Google is shallow does not necessarily mean that we would be better off severing the company into various parts or restricting its ambitions in some markets. But the very fact that Google is nothing like anything we have seen before both demands vigilance and warrants concern. That fact also means that there is no general answer to how competing firms or regulators should approach Google's ventures. Everything must be considered case by case and with an eye on particulars. "Is Google a monopoly?" is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should begin by examining what Google actually does and how that compares to what competitors do or might do in the future. That approach will give us a better sense of what the Googlization of everything means and what has already been done about it.
THE SEARCH FOR A BETTER SEARCH
There is a broad consensus that Web search is still in a very pedestrian phase. Both Yahoo and Google generally work the same way, and neither offers consistently superior search results. People tend to choose one or the other platform based on other factors—habit, the default search service embedded in a browser, their choice of e-mail client, appearance, or speed. At most search-engine companies, the computers tend to take the string of text that users type into a box and scour their vast indexes of copies of Web pages for matches. Among the matches, each page is ranked instantly by a system that judges "relevance." Google calls its ranking system PageRank: links rise to the top of the list of search results by attracting a large number of incoming links from other pages. The more significant or highly ranked a recommending page is, the more weight a link from it carries within the PageRank scoring system. Each website copied into Google's servers thus carries with it a set of relative scores instantly calculated to place it in a particular place on a results page, and this ranking is presumed to reflect its relevance to the search query. Relevance thus tends to mean something akin to value, but it is a relative and contingent value, because relevance is also calculated in a way that is specific not just to the search itself but also to the search history of the user. For this reason, most Web search companies retain records of previous searches and note the geographic location of the user.
Excerpted from The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Copyright © 2011 Siva Vaidhyanathan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Introduction: The Gospel of Google
1. Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web
2. Google's Ways and Means: Faith in Aptitude and Technology
3. The Googlization of Us: Universal Surveillance and
4. The Googlization of the World: Prospects for a Global Public Sphere
5. The Googlization of Knowledge: The Future of Books
6. The Googlization of Memory:
Information Overload, Filters, and the Fracturing of Knowledge
Conclusion: The Human Knowledge Project