[AfrICANN-discuss] The real threat to the open web lies with the opaque elite who run it

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Tue Apr 17 17:45:15 SAST 2012


The real threat to the open web lies with the opaque elite who run it

Despite its censorship concerns, Google is part of a small group which
operates in startling parallel to the failed financial sector

 Emily Bell

As Google co-founder Sergey Brin pointed out in an interview with the
Guardian, the future of the "open web" is under threat. The
billionaire laid out his concerns that a combination of repressive
governments and companies like Google's arch rivals, Apple and
Facebook, are seeking to fence off or stifle the power of the

Brin's contention that censorship and "walled gardens", such as
Apple's operating systems and Facebook's world of applications, will
throttle the world of free and linked information on which Google has
built its fortune may be right. But it is also the case that many see
Google's credibility and reliability as a standard bearer for the open
web as increasingly compromised.

Google does indeed thrive on a world of linked and available content
which can be searched and then organised by its algorithms and
presented complete with attendant advertising. However, this
enthusiasm for openness is in direct contradiction to some of the
company's recent practices. Google has never been an "open" company:
it is famously and fiercely protective of its own intellectual
property in its algorithms; it routinely issues NDAs (non-disclosure
agreements) to visitors to its labs and offices, and the level of
control it exerts over both its own corporate destiny and the
information of its users has recently caused disquiet.

Only last week Google caused consternation by issuing new
classifications of non-voting shares, which increased the control of
Brin and his founding partner and Google chief executive, Larry Page,
over the long-term future of the company. In the past few months
Google has also drawn the wrong kind of headlines for the way it
collects and uses individual data.

As recently as Saturday the New York Times ran a lengthy article about
Google attracting a $25,000 (£15,700) fine from the US regulator, the
Federal Communications Commission, for blocking and delaying an
investigation into "mistakes" the company made whilst collecting
images and data for its Street View mapping project. In 2010 Google
admitted that over a three-year period it had not just been
photographing people's houses, but scanning their unprotected wireless
data in the process. This "inadvertent" mistake included storing data
from emails, instant messages and web browsing activity.

Another "mistake" occurred when the company was caught trying to
circumvent privacy controls set by the Safari browser. For an
organisation led and staffed by the top 1% of the world's engineering
PhDs, Google's bumbling activities around privacy controls look

But perhaps most telling of all has been Google's attempts to thwart
the rampant growth of Facebook by becoming more "social". The launch
of its social platform Google+, a rather uninspiring product which has
not been adopted by users with the alacrity of Twitter or Facebook,
brought with it a whole series of unGoogle-like activities. For the
first time "social" search results showed up in those delivered by
Google's algorithms, amid criticism that this was not the "unbiased"
presentation of information but Google leveraging its stronger search
capabilities to push people into using its weaker social platform.

To add a further layer of unease, Google announced earlier in the year
that it would collect data from users across all the Google products
they used, in order to deliver "better" search results.

The ardent caucus of Google fans in the US technical press, whose
ingestion of Google Kool-Aid adds to the sense of cult-like support
around the company, argue that Google is more transparent than its
rivals, and still produces better products. But this is not the point.
The point is that Google, with its worry over government interventions
and the rise of the equally unappealing Facebook, is only a defender
of the open doctrine in as far as it helps it reach business goals.
Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this either. Every
business does it. However, it is also manifestly obvious that the
operation of the web as an open and "generative" system, to quote
Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain, needs oversight which prioritises
citizens over consumers.

Although no one as far as we know is going to lose their home or job
as a result of Google being sloppy with its privacy controls, or
Facebook collecting every tiny detail of your social activity, the
parallels between the tech industry in Silicon Valley now and the
financial system which so catastrophically failed in recent years is
startling. A small elite of gifted (largely male) super-wealthy
masters of the universe are creating systems through their own
brilliance which very few others in government, regulation or the
general public can understand. The engineering of products which
people like and use, and the startling creation of wealth which
accompanies them, has a dampening effect on the criticisms and
concerns of those who believe that the control of the few over the
data of the many has potentially serious consequences.

Here is where the real threat to the open web lies. A series of
decisions made by an elite of ferociously competitive business owners,
whose consequences are unclear and whose methods are poorly understood
by those who are increasingly dependent on the products and services
of these opaque companies.

• This article was amended on 17 April 2012 to correct a mispelling of
Sergey Brin's name in the picture caption and body text.

    © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated
companies. All rights reserved.

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