Google’s aim to organize the world’s information sounds benign enough. But delve a little deeper into its research and development efforts or witness its boundless encroachment into advertising, software, phones, glasses, cars, home automation, travel, internet services, artificial intelligence, robotics, online shopping (and so on), and you may get a more uneasy and prickly sensation. Is Google out to organize information or you? Perhaps it’s time to begin thinking about Google as a corporate hegemony, not quite a monopoly yet, but so powerful that counter-measures become warranted.
An open letter, excerpted below, from Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer AG, does us all a service by raising the alarm bells.
From the Guardian:
Dear Eric Schmidt,
As you know, I am a great admirer of Google’s entrepreneurial success. Google’s employees are always extremely friendly to us and to other publishing houses, but we are not communicating with each other on equal terms. How could we? Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google. We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You yourself speak of the new power of the creators, owners, and users.
In the long term I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition – not only economic, but also political. As the situation stands, your company will play a leading role in the various areas of our professional and private lives – in the house, in the car, in healthcare, in robotronics. This is a huge opportunity and a no less serious threat. I am afraid that it is simply not enough to state, as you do, that you want to make the world a “better place”.
Google lists its own products, from e-commerce to pages from its own Google+ network, higher than those of its competitors, even if these are sometimes of less value for consumers and should not be displayed in accordance with the Google algorithm. It is not even clearly pointed out to the user that these search results are the result of self-advertising. Even when a Google service has fewer visitors than that of a competitor, it appears higher up the page until it eventually also receives more visitors.
You know very well that this would result in long-term discrimination against, and weakening of, any competition, meaning that Google would be able to develop its superior market position still further. And that this would further weaken the European digital economy in particular.
This also applies to the large and even more problematic set of issues concerning data security and data utilisation. Ever since Edward Snowden triggered the NSA affair, and ever since the close relations between major American online companies and the American secret services became public, the social climate – at least in Europe – has fundamentally changed. People have become more sensitive about what happens to their user data. Nobody knows as much about its customers as Google. Even private or business emails are read by Gmail and, if necessary, can be evaluated. You yourself said in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is a remarkably honest sentence. The question is: are users happy with the fact that this information is used not only for commercial purposes – which may have many advantages, yet a number of spooky negative aspects as well – but could end up in the hands of the intelligence services, and to a certain extent already has?
Google is sitting on the entire current data trove of humanity, like the giant Fafner in The Ring of the Nibelung: “Here I lie and here I hold.” I hope you are aware of your company’s special responsibility. If fossil fuels were the fuels of the 20th century, then those of the 21st century are surely data and user profiles. We need to ask ourselves whether competition can generally still function in the digital age, if data is so extensively concentrated in the hands of one party.
There is a quote from you in this context that concerns me. In 2009 you said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” The essence of freedom is precisely the fact that I am not obliged to disclose everything that I am doing, that I have a right to confidentiality and, yes, even to secrets; that I am able to determine for myself what I wish to disclose about myself. The individual right to this is what makes a democracy. Only dictatorships want transparent citizens instead of a free press.
Against this background, it greatly concerns me that Google – which has just announced the acquisition of drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace – has been seen for some time as being behind a number of planned enormous ships and floating working environments that can cruise and operate in the open ocean. What is the reason for this development? You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find this alarming.
Historically, monopolies have never survived in the long term. Either they have failed as a result of their complacency, which breeds its own success, or they have been weakened by competition – both unlikely scenarios in Google’s case. Or they have been restricted by political initiatives.
Another way would be voluntary self-restraint on the part of the winner. Is it really smart to wait until the first serious politician demands the breakup of Google? Or even worse – until the people refuse to follow?
Read the entire article here.