Google Deconstructed

I am eagerly awaiting my copy of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s new book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why Should Worry), from this weekend.

Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, brings a level of policy thinking I only wish was the mean in regulatory circles. From the first chapter of his book, and his conversation with Jerry Brito in the latest Surprisingly Free podcast (available free at the iTunes store), it’s clear that Vaidhyanathan is no libertarian. Although he says the government would be negligent if it did not at least consider creating some restraints on Google, his observations derive from a much greater understanding of the company that few in Congress, the FTC or the FCC seem to have. That doesn’t make his conclusions any less debatable, but at least they elevate the discussion.

The way Vaidhyanathan lays out Google’s business may be the best aspect of his book—and certainly makes it worthwhile reading for anyone with an interest in Internet policymaking. Google’s goal, Vaidhyanathan explains, is nothing short of organizing and cataloguing the information available on the Internet, a task at which it has done phenomenally well.

Vaidhyanathan regards Google as “sui generis,” that is, in a class by itself. Despite the existence of would-be competitors such as Bing (a joint venture of Microsoft and Yahoo) and other lesser known search engines, and Google’s assertion that “competition is just a click away,” none of these competitors can duplicate the infrastructure (servers, bandwidth) advantages that Google has, infrastructure that allows it process and deliver search results as fast and accurately as it does. At the same time, though it is somewhat intangible, Google’s mindshare among users is a bankable, asset. The more people who use Google, the better it becomes at search. Switching to a competitor means a downgrade in quality and performance.

But for all of Google’s strength as a search engine, Vaidhyanathan, from the first paragraphs of his book, notes that Google’s primary business is not search, but advertising.

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.

On the whole, Vaidhyanathan is correct. In the paragraphs that follow, he does a superb job of showing readers where Google fits in the Internet ecosystem—no easy task—and where its strengths and vulnerabilities lie.

Another thing I like is that he is as flummoxed as I am about the way Google, in large part, as succeeded in creating for itself a “good guy” image—an image that, at least until recently, has carried over into the political sphere–while other companies, just as big, especially the telephone and cable companies, are painted as “bad,” or at least more self-interested.

Vaidhyanathan cautions—again correctly—that Google, like any other publically-traded company, is accountable only to its shareowners. But as one progresses through the first chapter of The Googlization of Everything, Vaidhyanathan strays closer and closer to arguing that Google needs to be regulated simply because it is too good at what it does. He freely admits that Google succeeded where many others failed–—Alta Vista, Lycos, Cuil, to name three. Further, he admits that Google’s success derived from its own organic ideas, strategies and approaches, not bare-knuckled abuse of power.

How has that worked out? As Vaidhyanathan himself writes:

“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.”

To me, this sounds like the type of on-line environment that has been the goal of policymakers for the past decade. It has been the motivation behind network neutrality, COPA, COPPA, mandated content filtering and other such government initiatives that were far more intrusive and damaging to online freedom of speech and commerce. Google’s a textbook example of how the market, using the principle of rational self-interest, can deliver a social good. Google’s business hinges on greater Internet use. Internet use will only increase if people are comfortable enough with the experience. So, because of Google, a search on “breast cancer” will yield a list of legitimate health and medical web sites (well beyond the first page, too), not porn links. Not perfect, perhaps, but it addresses the problem that both sides have with filtering: one, that good information would be blocked with the bad; the other, that kids would be unwittingly exposed to adult web sites.

Trouble is, in the very next paragraph, Vaidhyanathan dismisses this all as “a brilliant trick.” And here is where his arguments start to get troublesome. The very fact that Google is a commercial entity means that it can never be trusted to serve the public interest, says Vaidhyanathan. That its business activities currently track with a perceived public good can at best be seen as temporary. To Vaidhyanathan, Google is Anakin Skywalker, the powerful but conflicted Jedi Knight from the Star Wars prequels, for whom it took but a whisper from the evil emperor to fall to the dark side.

Ultimately Vaidhyanathan begins to display the same thinking that drove network neutrality and still drives other calls for pre-emptive regulation of aggressively innovative companies like Google—that at some undetermined time–given an alignment of certain undetermined circumstances—Google could possibly end up in too powerful a position. As such, he falls behind the most disturbing shift in tech policy thinking in recent years—one that justifies sweeping regulation on a foggy scenario of potential harm rather than on the basis of actual, demonstrable harm.

To give the author some credit, he urges policymakers to go slow and calls the idea of search neutrality “absurd” (which hasn’t stopped yet another Congressional inquiry into Google’s search mechanisms). In the Surprisingly Free podcast, he talks about the idea of a “commission” that would investigate complaints about search engine policies, but only in general terms.

This is why I am looking forward to reading the rest of his book. I want to see exactly how far he goes in justifying his calls for search engine regulation and what those proposals might be. That the first chapter of The Googlization of Everything has yielded this lengthy a post speaks to the meat it offers. I hope to be back to blog more.