TOC Google mon désamour: when pets grow too big to keep Your Turn

March 2, 2010

If you believe the media, Google has had a bad week. First, as Rachel Donadio wrote from Rome (*), "three Google executives were convicted of violating Italian privacy laws", held "responsible for the content posted on its system". Then we learnt in the Financial Times (**) "the European Commission's decision to launch a preliminary probe" into "Google's hugely profitable search advertising business".

Were I to boast "I told you so", faithful readers would be inclined to forgive me. Some babies grow up to be bullies, I declared a year ago and now Europe is openly asking whether it can afford to keep Google untethered in its backyard if it behaves more like a pest than a pet.

Perhaps, as I have warned repeatedly about the risks Google's strategy creates for our privacy, I should also savor seeing "Peter Fleischer, its global privacy counsel, [...] found guilty of violating the Italian privacy code". While no physical violence is being used, he is akin to those physicians who make sure the patient can bear the torture. To echo his own advice, he freely chose to work for Google and so must accept the consequences.

Such a reaction however would be wrong as well as mean-spirited. The Italian judgment is not about personal data unwittingly entrusted to Google by its rightful owner and promptly converted by Google to its profit. It's about how Google was used unwittingly by a perpetrator to distribute content victimizing a third party. If we look for a better legal framework, it behooves us not to jump to conclusions.

Christopher Caldwell gives us a useful hint (***). Stripped of its supporting details, his argument is that Google's current problems are all about size. Indeed individual acts, however aggressive they may be, do not a bully make. It's the fact nobody dares retaliate, fear mixing with impotence.

I am in no doubt that, despite initial intent and recent denials, Google has grown into a bully. But we must be careful about what we wish for.

Unbridled growth is often the natural outcome of success in an actual capitalist society. And under current pronaocratic regimes - in Italy a media magnate even managed to get himself elected Prime Minister, thus cutting out the lobbyist - rather than democratic justice, expect abusive behavior by de facto monopolies to be left to the uncertain outcome of protracted legal battles among competing economic interests.

Even if we assume justice can prevail, doesn't the diabolo effect which fuels Google's growth meet a genuine market need, delivering a compatible and predictable way for all information producers and consumers to come into contact? To Damian Kulash Jr. (****), Google's YouTube once provided a convenient advertising channel which "brought big crowds to our concerts on five continents". In Tim Bradshaw and Maija Palmer's words (*****), Google fills "a role, in many ways, that television used to before its audiences went to cable".

If Google's current size is both desirable and threatening, won't any remedy be worse than the disease? Our only hope is to go back to the essence of Google's business, to be a recommendation system, a service to be studied according to decentralization, responsibility and protest process.

While a burden from which to flee in the eyes of too many, responsibility cannot be enforced if left undefined. What then should be its extent in Google's case? If it is true that it "removed the [incriminating] video within two hours of receiving a formal complaint from the Italian police", condemming it because it "did not act fast enough" can only mean Google must censor the content of all information conveyed by its system.

Sensing censorship has bad press, "Alfredo Robledo, one of the prosecutors" strongly disagrees. He is quibbling. Steve Jobs has no such qualms. As reported by Jenna Wortham (******), "Apple has started banning many applications for its iPhone that feature sexually suggestive material". Meanwhile, according to David Gelles, the iPad does not support Flash because Steve Jobs allegedly finds it "slow and cumbersome" (*******).

But as Jonathan Zittrain warns us (********), company censorship opens the door to government censorship. The closed system it creates stifles creativity and impedes growth. Think indeed of the manpower necessary for a credible censorship of video content and say good bye to YouTube.

Another conundrum? Recall how much Google insists information in its system is processed by machines, not human beings. What if we were to distinguish between recommendation systems and recommenders? A recommender, it is hoped, takes personal responsibility over what he or she recommends. This is not to exercise censorship but to express personal preferences, thus making Alfredo Robledo happy. Recommendation systems, on the other hand, match participants who remain solely responsible for their own content perhaps under some recommender's approval.

In this perspective, Apple may be as whimsical and dictatorial a recommender as it wishes, as long as Google provides the open, filter-free, universal platform Jonathan Zittrain rightfully advocates. Like its past dispute with Viacom, its Italian imbroglio should be resolved in Google's favor.

Do not forget though about the need for a protest process. Assuming he does not recommend illegal content, a recommender owes no explanation to anyone. "Apple's policies for what it deemed acceptable seemed a little opaque at times". Sorry, it's Steve Jobs' privilege to like Playboy and dislike Flash. Not so with an open system like Google. Its rankings being but recommendations, it is its responsibility to prove they hide no bias.

Yet without transparency, how can Google provide a credible protest process? When I wrote this years ago, I was thinking more about users than advertisers. But the more Google's dominance deprives its clients of market freedom, the greater their own right for redress.

It has come to roost in Brussels. As Lex pointedly wrote (*********), "more dangerous, if regulators proceed, will be an impasse over transparency". I empathize with Google. It has precious little room between being transparently fair and giving its proprietary algorithms away.

If Google's competitors win the favor of the European Commission, if the transparency issue has no equitable solution, and if market pressure does not simply put another bully in its place, does it follow we must forgo the benefits we reap from Google's size combined with its openness?

The answer lies in considering the third factor of recommendation systems. Extreme centralization is the real flaw in Google's approach.

To mediate between information producers and consumers, we need an open, universal system all right. Adding a matching layer on top of Internet can do the trick in all transparency. As for a recommendation system, why not fit the corresponding matching engine with a dumb ranking algorithm based for instance on item recency, as in Craigslist? More useful rankings can be decentralized to a throng of small scale recommenders. Their number will smooth their individual biases. Competition and specialization will ensure their quality.

To retain large scale efficiency, advertising would work at the matching layer. Advertisers might even find it possible to respect consumer privacy.

It is my pet project and excessive growth has not been an issue so far. What a pity!

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ................... Italy Convicts 3 Google Officials in Privacy Case, by Rachel Donadio (New York Times) - February 25, 2010
  • (**) ................. Advertising chiefs welcome Brussels probe into Google's search business, by FT reporters (Financial Times) - February 25, 2010
  • (***) .............. Is Google now a monopoly, by Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times) - February 27, 2010
  • (****) ............ WhoseTube?, by Damian Kulash Jr. (New York Times) - February 20, 2010
  • (*****) .......... Ad world keen to find new 'frenemy', by Tim Bradshaw and Maija Palmer (Financial Times) - February 25, 2010
  • (******) ........ Apple Bans Some Apps For Lascivious Content, by Jenna Wortham (New York Times) - February 23, 2010
  • (*******) ..... Jobs ignites war of words over Flash, by David Gelles (Financial Times) - February 23, 2010
  • (********) ... A fight over freedom at Apple's core, by Jonathan Zittrain (Financial Times) - February 4, 2010
  • (*********) . Google, by The Lex Column (Financial Times) - February 25, 2010
March 2010
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