TOC China, Google and the diabolo Your Turn

January 26, 2010

Some trade on news. Many value them for their entertainment value. The wise look for what they reveal.

In this perspective, the decision of the US Supreme Court to lift restrictions on "campaign spending by corporations and unions" loses much of its shock value. The United States are but a pronaocracy grandstanding as a democracy. So why did Adam Liptak's report receive top billing by the New York Times (*)? Rather than the extent of legal corruption, it reveals how much freedom of speech is held hostage to commercial interests.

Speaking of the New York Times, read Kenneth Li and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson on its making official "[it] will begin charging for online access to its website by 2011" (**). As if it were not charging its users already by forcing them to accept a cookie, i.e. to surrender some personal data. The real change is in the nature of the charge or, more probably, in adding a monetary toll to the existing data tax.

What should we make then of Google's recent announcement that "[it will] stop cooperating with Chinese censorship and consider closing its offices and operations in China altogether"? According to Andrew Jacobs and Miguel Helft, Google had found itself victim of "attacks originated within China" and targeting "the Gmail accounts of human rights activists" (***).

In a follow up article, Miguel Helft lists three interpretations (****), "a business calculation", "P.R." and "trying to do the right thing", the latter being Google's official line. For mainstream wisdom, Google simply decided the favorable publicity was worth a limited financial loss today while nothing could guarantee a future security breach would not compel Google to exit from China later at a greater cost to both its finances and its reputation.

Yet "Whit Andrews, an analyst at Gartner", told Richard Waters and Maija Palmer "the decision to pull out of China will not stop Gmail accounts being [attacked]" (*****). As one may doubt Google's benevolence, but not the coherence of its vision, could there be more than meet the eye?

Recall Google's strategy is a lucid attempt to reap the benefits of a "diabolo effect", that is becoming the unavoidable conduit for all information flowing to and from all consumers. After Gillian Tett, give Thomas L. Friedman credit for understanding there is now more value in what he calls "knowledge flows" than in "knowledge stocks" (******). Imagine then the power of the person with a de facto monopoly over all those flows.

There is one danger in executing this strategy though. Imagine an organization can force you to share your universal observer cum recommender status. For all intent and purposes, you would fall under the very diabolo of this superior power and lose control of your own added-value.

Suspected to be behind the attacks on gmail, known to impose censorship on searches, enforcing "increased surveillance of text messages" through cellular phone companies per Sharon LaFraniere (*******), China has shown it has this ambition. By shaking off its censorship, Google correctly decides to escape from under this deadly competitor before it is too late. The world may be big enough for two warring diabolos.

Mark Landler writes (********) "the Chinese government has sought to describe the situation as strictly a business dispute". Indeed, just as Google flees from China's choking grip, why wouldn't China resist Google's monopolistic grasp?

Why then should the US Secretary of State declared "the United States supported Google in publicly defying the Chinese governement"? According to Kathrin Hille (*********), Beijing duly claimed "Washington was using Google as a foreign policy tool". This last assertion is flatly wrong but highly revealing. Edit it slightly to read "Google was using Washington as a foreign policy tool" and you will be closer to the truly shocking truth.

Do you think I am going a fillip to far? Read the press. "Paris threatens Google over book-scanning", by Ben Hall (**********). "An Antitrust Complaint For Google in Germany", by Eric Pfanner (***********). Doesn't the context makes clear Google acts like an international power and, according to Mrs Clinton herself, has enlisted the US into supporting its, i.e. Google's, foreign policy?

History buffs know several examples of such subtle power shifts. First by your sheer strength you become Mayor of the Palace, the power behind the throne (1). Then you slowly reduce the titular king to be a convenient puppet. Later your descendant will depose his descendant and the sorry end of his late line will be dubbed to have been "rois fainéants", literally do-nothing kings (2).

President Obama is well aware by now of how difficult it is to fight back. Facing a fractious Congress representing competing feudal corporate interests, himself personally indebted to Google, what can he do? Outsource government operations to Google for greater efficiency? Not a great idea if he shares my perspective. Nationalize Google? How un-American! It is not as if Google were tottering towards bankruptcy.

And yet, if he thinks about it, there is an inherent weakness in Google's diabolo strategy. Just as censorship can break it from above, eprivacy can steal its power from below by preventing Google from observing information flows. Better, by construction, this approach is immune to censorship.

Enforcing our data rights is one thing, but how would an eprivacy-based solution answer the market demand for a diabolo to efficiently match all information producers and consumers, be they amateurs or professionals? The model of course is the Internet itself, a shared mechanism based on maximum decentralization. What the Internet does for communication, one can imitate for confidential matching and recommending.

Whether for the sake of unlimited profits or artificial harmony, a single, all-seeing recommender is a diabolic project.
In the name of freedom of thought, can't the United States try to topple both Google and China's warring diabolos?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........................ Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Campaign Spending Limit, by Adam Liptak (New York Times) - January 22, 2010
  • (**) ..................... NY Times to charge for website access, by Kenneth Li and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - January 20, 2010
  • (***) ................... Google May End China Operation Over Censorship, by Andrew Jacobs and Miguel Helft (New York Times) - January 13, 2010
  • (****) ................. Small Effect On Revenue, And Windfall In Publicity, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - January 15, 2010
  • (*****) .............. Attacks are first to pass wall of security, by Richard Waters and Maija Palmer (Financial Times) - January 14, 2010
  • (******) ............ Is China An Enron (Part 2), by Thomas L. Friedman (New York Times) - January 20, 2010
  • (*******) ......... China to Scan Text Messages To Spot 'Unhealthy Content', by Sharon LaFraniere (New York Times) - January 20, 2010
  • (********) ....... Clinton Makes Case for Internet Freedom as a Plank of American Foreign Policy, by Mark Landler (New York Times) - January 22, 2010
  • (*********) ..... Beijing's media take harder line over Google pull-out threat, by Kathrin Hille (Financial Times) - January 21, 2010
  • (**********) ... Paris threatens Google over book-scanning, by Ben Hall (Financial Times) - January 13, 2010
  • (***********) .An Antitrust Complaint For Google in Germany, by Eric Pfanner (New York Times) - January 19, 2010
  • (1) see les rois fainéants in the French Wikepedia (note the English version for this entry needs to be improved).
  • (2) see mayor of the palace in the Wikepedia
January 2010
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