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We are all in Google’s crossfire

Ahead of next week’s live spiked debate, Andrew Orlowski looks at how Google is securing profits and overriding copyright law.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Science & Tech

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In the run-up to the live spiked debate ‘Has Google got too big?’, taking place in central London on Thursday 18 March, we will be publishing a series of articles on Google. Here, Andrew Orlowski of The Register examines how Google is openly and not so openly reshaping the internet.

Every year, politicians and media moguls await the hottest ticket on the conference circuit. At Google’s Zeitgeist event, attendees feel flattered to be invited. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and the Prince of Wales have all given speeches at Zeitgeist, and each was careful to laud Google and what it supposedly represents. It says much about our political elites that they feel they have something to learn from the sponsor, rather than the other way around. After all, you’d think that was the point of the event: to educate a foreign corporation on the mysterious inner workings of British power.

But Google worship, and its flipside, Google angst, are abundant today. Across the media, creative industries, computing and telecomms, Google is recognised as the most transformative, if not the biggest, competitor. But the mythology isn’t always helpful. Inflating the myth, rather than conducting a cool appraisal of the reality, suggests that responsibility and blame lie elsewhere, that we think the mechanics of Google’s operation are beyond our comprehension. This hardly makes for good policy, or an informed democracy.

Google is not averse to a little myth-making of its own, of course. No one does ‘playful’ or ‘naïve’ more cynically. When policymakers pack their suitcases for Zeitgeist, they hope that Google will sprinkle some of the magic pixie dust of the internet upon their unimaginative policies. Google describes its page ranking system – abandoned in all but name – as reflecting the ‘uniquely democratic nature of the web’, a strange notion if you’re accustomed to thinking of one person, one vote. In the 1980s, some free marketeers claimed that markets, not voting, reflected our truest intentions – but Google pushes politics even further to the margins and claims to know the truest intentions of all.

While much of the debate about Google focuses on search and surveillance, censorship and the monopoly pricing of advertisements, there are two broader areas of huge significance. Surprisingly, neither has much to do with searching the web (search is incidental to Google these days, and almost a ‘legacy’ business). And perhaps because they’re a little dull, they don’t really set the hearts of business editors aflame. But they do auger what kind of networks we will use in a decade, and whether Google will be granted that privileged monopoly status so many businesses seek.

Google has two business strategies. One strategy is to ensure that the internet’s pipelines, both wired and wireless, can’t make money. It has lobbied for a ‘neutral’ internet, and sought to write the first technical regulations ever imposed on the internet – the first rulebook for operators. Robbing the retail networks (in the jargon, ‘access networks’, or ISPs) of the ability to generate value allows Google to concentrate the value instead in its vast data centres. It’s a peculiarly inefficient way of distributing bits, and precludes all kind of clever network innovation – but it’s the one that Google prefers. It’s where it has placed its bets.

The other strategy, more noticeable, helps ensure the destruction of the value of copyright. This permits Google to become, by default, the world’s royalty collection society, the only aggregator of digital value. As with internet advertising today, Google would set the royalty rates, weakening the ability of creators to negotiate collectively for better rates, as they do today. Newspapers, publishers and other media companies have only belatedly begun to come to terms with Google’s take-no-prisoners approach. For example, it took EMI Publishing six months to realise that Google had digitised its valuable sheet music collection, as part of its Google Books settlement, without asking. There are entire industries that don’t realise they’re in Google’s crossfire, until they’ve been shot, and the body carried from the battlefield.

In many ways Google is simply making a brutally honest appraisal of the internet business. The web has created far more losers than winners, and money is scarce. If it wasn’t Google posing such difficult questions, it may well have been somebody else. But if policymakers are going to do culture and business with equal rigour, then they will need to do something quite difficult: step away from the beguiling, childish innocence Google sprinkles upon their political masters, and grow up.

Andrew Orlowski is executive editor of The Register.

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The spiked debate, ‘Has Google got too big?’, will take place at the Royal Society of Arts in London between 6.30pm and 8pm on Thursday 18 March. It’s a free debate, but to avoid disappointment book your place NOW: click here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Killick called Google a frenemy of the internet generation. Back in 2004, Sandy Starr said Google was being slated and feted for the wrong reasons. Elsewhere, he criticised the publishing industry for stalling Google’s attempt to create a virtual library. Tim Black examined an Italian court’s desicion to sentence Google executives for privacy infringement. Jennie Bristow reviewed a book which put the case for people escaping from their all-consuming ‘Second Lives’. Or read more at spiked issue Innovation.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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