You’d expect me to say this but Google’s transformation into Alphabet is a brilliant move that enables Page, Brin, and their company to escape the bonds of their past — They’re just a search company. Why are they working on self-driving cars and magical contact lenses and high-flying balloons? — and go where no one has thought they would go before.
To Wall Street and countless bleating analysts — not to mention its competitors and plenty of government regulators — Google was a search company, though long ago it became so much more. I don’t just mean that it also made a great browser, the best maps, killer email, an open phone operating system and some of the best phones, and a new operating system (and the damned fine computer I’m writing on right now) — and that it acquired the biggest video company and the best traffic data company. I don’t just mean that Google has for a long time really been the powerhouse advertising company.
No, Google long ago became a personal services company, the post-mass-market company that treats every user as a customer it knows individually. That is the heart of Google. When they say they “focus on the user and all else will follow,” they mean it.
But Google was also a technology company, working on projects that didn’t fit with that mission.
So this move lets Page and Brin move up to the strategic stratosphere where they are most comfortable. It lets them recognize the tremendous job Sundar Pichai has been doing running the company that is now “just” Google. It lets them invest in new experiments and new lines of business — cars, medical technology, automated homes, and energy so far, and then WTF they can imagine and whatever problems they yearn to solve. It lets them tell Wall Street not to freak at a blip in the ad market — though, of course, the vast majority of the parent company’s revenue will still come from Google’s advertising business.
A journalist asked me a few minutes ago whether there was any risk to the change. I couldn’t think of any then. I suppose one risk is that this will only freak out especially European media and regulatory technopanickers, who will now go on a rampage warning that — SEE! — Google does want to rule the world. But what the hell. They were going to do that anyway.
A few weeks ago at Google I/O, I had the privilege of meeting Page. To introduce myself, I said that I wrote a book called What Would Google Do?. “Oh, I remember,” he said with impish grin and then he asked: “What would Google do? I want to know.”
See, I don’t think even Larry Page knows what Google — er, Alphabet — will do. He is now setting himself up for discoveries, surprises, exploration, experimentation, and a magnificently uncertain future. Who wants a certain future? That’d be so damned boring. So horribly conventional.
Disclosure: I own Google — er, Alphabet — stock. And I now lust after Alphabet swag.
It’s difficult to judge the entire FTC report based on the excerpts and reports written by The Wall Street Journal. I figured the best I could do would be to ask myself where I draw the line between evil and good, illegal and legal in the behaviors alleged against Google.
* * *
First, the coverage says that Google scraped content from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other sometimes-competitors. Well, of course, Google scrapes content everywhere; that its Job 1. Scraping is no more illegal or evil than reading, just a helluvalot faster. Any site can stop scrapers at the door with robots.txt instructions. Once scraped or read, information itself cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing evil or illegal about consuming, using, and repeating that information.
It does not violate copyright law to reuse the information itself so long as the use does not infringe on its creator’s presentation of it. In other words, I can read on Yelp that a restaurant is open until 10 p.m. and repeat that in a restaurant listing on my newspaper site without fear; it’s information. (Whether I trust the source of that information and whether I link to it are separate questions that are also worthy of discussion in regards to journalism, where we read and repeat for a living.)
I see nothing wrong with Google and other search engines scraping and retaining content from a site in their unseen databases for the purpose of analyzing that content to decide how to present links to it in search. It is in sites’ enlightened self-interest for that to occur.
I also see nothing wrong with quoting from these services’ content for the purpose of linking to them. I would call that fair use. This is the behavior at the heart of the fight with publishers in Germany, where the word “snippet” is now a legal term, though — like “fair use” — it is not and should not be precisely defined. This is also the behavior that is now being taxed in Spain — that is, those quoting and linking to sites are now required to pay those sites, whether the quoted sites demand it or not. This is what led Google to shut down Google News there. With this law, Spain has attacked the heart of the web.
Now here is where the line would be crossed: If Google republished these services’ content in whole and without permission, then that is a violation of copyright law and Google would be in the wrong. Google and Yelp have tussled over just this in the past; Yelp’s reviews appeared on then disappeared from Google’s Places pages. The Journal’s report says:
When competitors asked Google to stop taking their content, it threatened to remove them from its search engine.
“It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect,” the report said, “which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down.”
I can’t tell exactly what happened here. If Google did indeed threaten to stop listing Yelp in search if it stopped Google from wholesale republishing its content, then I would call that an improper use of its power: evil. But I am not sure that is what happened. Yelp disappeared from the Places pages (which since themselves disappeared) but Yelp stayed in search (that’s how I get to it all the time). So without more information, I can’t draw a verdict on this point.
* * *
The next question is whether Google favors its own services in search. I’ve long found this allegation odd. First, publishers routinely promote their own services and fail to promote competitors’. When European publishers attacked Google, they complained that when searching on “running shoes” one finds Google’s ads for its own shoe advertisers and partners atop the page. But I have pointed out that if you go to the “Schuhe” link on Bild.com — the largest newspaper in Europe, owned by one of Google’s betes noires — one finds no promotion of competitors’ offerings. On Google, one does indeed find ads from its shoe advertisers and retailers, clearly labeled, but then on the top screen one also finds links to their competitors in shoespace, Zappos and Nike.
And if one searches for “maps” one finds Google Maps first (they are the best) but then links to competitors Mapquest, Yahoo, and Bing. What publisher does that? Aren’t news organizations supposed to be impartial? Then under this doctrine shouldn’t People promote Us?
That’s an even odder expectation of Google: that it be impartial. I know of no law that decrees that search must be impartial. Hell, a U.S. district judge said that Chinese search engine Baidu had a First Amendment right to be partial and censor search results. I would find it even harder to define impartiality in search than I would in journalism. In fact, I want my search results to be partial, to favor quality, originality, authority, relevance (to my request and ultimately to me), and timeliness (when that is relevant). Impartial search would be noisy, spammed, useless search.
Also note that history’s first ads in search — on Bill Gross’ GoTo.com, which became Overture, which was acquired by Yahoo — featured paid placement in rather than merely alongside search. Indeed, Google had to pay Yahoo $300+ million in settlement for infringing on the patent for advertising in search from Overture. But along the way, it was Google itself that instilled in us the idea that ads should not appear in search and that one should not be able to pay for placement. So Google set that standard. Now it’s true that the FTC makes it living holding commercial entities to their own standards. But to be found guilty of such consumer fraud, Google must have made the promise to which it is now being held. Does it? In its principles, Google says ads should be relevant and labeled — and they are — but doesn’t say anything that I can find about impartiality.
Now if it’s true that Google purposefully and secretly downgrades competitors, I would find that to be a betrayal of the trust we hold in it: evil. I don’t know whether that’s proven here. If Google promotes its own sites without labeling that as promotion, I would find that hypocritical, but I also don’t know whether that is happening here.
* * *
The next allegation in The Journal’s report is that Google restricted advertisers from using data obtained while advertising on Google in campaigns placed on competitors’ services. I’m not sure precisely what this means but I will say that Google — a company that believes information should flow freely — should allow brands that have paid to advertise to use whatever intelligence they gain however and wherever they wish. More broadly, I have argued that point in posts about what both Google and Facebook could do for news, advocating a freer exchange of data about users and content. In any case, The Journal says Google revised its terms to “give advertisers more control over their own ad-campaign data.”
* * *
Finally, The Journal says (in an abbreviated graphic) that Google tried to restrict sites that did search deals from also doing deals with competitors, including Bing. I’d call that just stupid: a red cape for antitrust investigators. The Journal said one investigator cited a lack of evidence of this complaint.
* * *
Please keep in mind two things about this report. First, Journal owner Rupert Murdoch has what one might call in my impolite company a hard-on for Google. Second, a much more reasoned Washington Post report explains that the accidentally leaked report was from the FTC’s lawyers, who tend to itch for antitrust fights, while a separate report from the agency’s economists — who look for impact of companies’ behavior on consumers — argued against taking on Google.
Let’s also remember that it’s the market that made Google as big as it is. In Germany — the front line of the war against Google — the company has its second highest market penetration of anywhere in the world, 50 percent higher than in America. German consumers obviously use and apparently like Google and I must ask whether their media and government are in sync with them. Google argues — and I agree — that there are perfectly good alternatives for every consumer service it offers: Bing for search, Mapquest for Maps, Outlook for mail, and so on.
But — and this is a huge but — there is no easy alternative for advertisers. That is where I have long argued that Google is vulnerable to accusations of abuse of power. When it comes to which advertisers are deemed to be bad actors, Google wields the power of God. Some shopping comparison sites are pure spam and Google is right to ban them. But should we always trust Google to make that decision? I’ve suggested that Google should have a jury of commercial peers help with that judgment.
My bottom line: If Google secretly disadvantages quality — not spammy — competitors, that would be wrong. If Google presented others’ *complete* content without permission and ejected sites that resisted such wholesale copying from search, that would be wrong. But in the Journal report, I don’t see sufficient evidence of either act to definitively declare guilt. More to the point in the discussion of antitrust at the FTC and in Europe, I don’t see cause to break up the company.
The other day, I spoke at length with a European journalist who disagrees with me about Google, Silicon Valley, Eurotechnopanic, and regulation. She reflexively leapt to regulation as a necessary reaction to any company that grows “too big.” I asked her, as I ask many with whom I have this conversation, to show me the statutory definition of “too big.” The issue is not how big a company is but what it does with that size. The issue is not what a company could do with that power but what it does with that power. I also asked her to show me why I should trust government to do a better job managing these processes than the market. The market took care of Microsoft’s excesses, not the EU. And governments in Europe are doing much to damage the net, from the Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht to Spain’s link tax to the EU court’s right to be forgotten. I acknowledge that I sound like a libertarian when I say this but I will point out that I am a Hillary Clinton Democrat. But I do not favor regulation for regulation’s sake.
I sometimes wish Google would fuck up more so I could criticize it more often. I have criticized Google. But I have defended it because I generally find it to be a good company and because it is often the whipping boy for those who would attack not just Google but the net and its disruption as well as American technology companies. If on the basis of the Journal report you want to see me repudiate Google and call for its dismembering, sorry.
Oddly, Google chief economist Hal Varian analyzes newspapers‘ problems and prescribes solutions strictly from an old-media perspective — based on attention to marketing messages — rather than an internet (namely, Google) perspective of relevance and relationships.
In a speech to Italian journalists, Varian says that “the basic economic problem facing news is increased competition for attention” and that newspapers must use such tricks as tablets and dayparts to get people to spend more leisure time with news so they can show them more ads (ignoring, for one thing, the fact that advertising abundance — championed by Google — lowers advertising prices and takes from newspapers the pricing power they once had). “The fundamental challenge facing newspapers is to increase the time people spend on their content,” Varian says. “More time reading the newspaper online translates into more online ad revenue.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Pardon me for suggesting to a Googler that we would be better off asking, what would Google do?
Google reinvented the advertising model, moving past attention as a proxy for intent (“if they see my ad I can convince them to buy my product”) and placement as a substitute for relevance (“men read the sports section and men buy tires, ergo we will advertise our tires in the sports section”). Google also killed the beloved myth of mass media that supported it for a century: All readers see all ads so we charge all advertisers for all readers. Google understands that users have variable value that is increased the closer it can get to delivering relevance and intuiting intent through signals — search, location, context, behavior as well as consuming content — which come from having a relationship of mutual value with the user.
The last thing newspapers should do is continue to try to shovel their old relationships, forms, and models into a new reality. No, don’t just sell space for messages to advertisers (for they’ll soon wake up and realize the pointlessness of the exercise). Don’t try to recreate old forms in new devices like tablets. Don’t measure the value of relationship as page views or time spent. Don’t think your primary value is manufacturing content that you then try to sell.
Newspapers and other former media outlets should become — as Google is — services that still inform — that is their core value — but now can use their own signals to learn about and return relevance to people as individuals and communities rather than masses, thus deriving greater value in the transaction.
For example, through my use of its Maps, Google knows where I live and work. My local newspaper doesn’t. When I ask for “pizza” in search, Google doesn’t give me a hundred archived articles with the word “pizza” in them but gives me the nearest pizza (soon, I hope, the best pizza, the pizza I’d most likely enjoy, the pizza my friends like with ever crisper relevance … and crusts). If my newspaper knew where I lived and worked — if it gave me reason to reveal that — it could target content to me the way it already tries to target ads. Why does *every* newspaper site still treat its home page as a one-size-fits-all print page when it could prioritize news that might be more relevant to me?
The reason: because newspapers still believe in the myth of mass media; they want to hope that with enough time you will look at all the pages they make and all the ads on them. That is the old attention-based media model Varian still recommends. This is also why newspapers continue to sell advertisers space for messages when instead they should be helping those merchants build better relationships with customers. But first, newspapers have to learn how to build relationships themselves.
That is the lesson Google teaches us. That is the new media market Google, more than anyone, created.
I wrote this for the Guardian. I’m crossposting it here for my archive. The post is all the more relevant a day later as Google, Apple, AT&T, and Public Knowledge attend a secret White House meeting about secrecy. I’d have a lot more respect for them if they refused, given the condition.
Technology companies: Now is the moment when you must answer for us, your users, whether you are collaborators in the U.S. government’s efforts to collect it all — our every move on the internet — or whether you, too, are victims of its overreach.
Every company named in Edward Snowden’s revelations has said that it must comply with government demands, including requirements to keep secret court orders secret. True enough. But there’s only so long they can hide behind that cloak before making it clear whether they are resisting government’s demands or aiding in them. And now the time has come to go farther: to use both technology and political capital to actively protect the public’s privacy. Who will do that?
We now know, thanks to Snowden, of at least three tiers of technology companies enmeshed in the NSA’s hoovering of our net activity (we don’t yet know whether the NSA has co-opted companies from the financial, retail, data services, and other industries):
(1) Internet platforms that provide services directly to consumers, allowing government to demand access to signals about us: Google with search, mail, calendars, maps; Facebook with connections; Skype with conversations, and so on.
In its first Prism reporting, the Washington Post apparently unfairly fingered nine of these companies, accusing the NSA and FBI of “tapping directly into the central servers” that hold our “chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.” Quickly, the companies repudiated that claim and sought the right to report at least how many secret demands are made. But there’s more they can and should do.
(2) Communications brands with consumer relationships that hand over metadata and/or open taps on internet traffic for collection by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, creating vast databases that can then be searched via XKeyscore. Verizon leads that list, and we now know from the Süddeutsche Zeitung that it also includes BT and Vodafone.
(3) Bandwidth providers that enable the NSA and its international partners to snoop on the net, wholesale. The Süddeutsche lists the three telco brands above in addition to Level 3, Global Crossing, Viatel, and Interroute. Eric King, head of research for Privacy International, asked in the Guardian, “Were the companies strong-armed, or are they voluntary intercept partners?”
The bulk data carriers have no consumer brands or relationships and thus are probably the least likely to feel commercial pressure to protect the rights of the users at the edge. The telephone companies should care more but they operate as oligopolies with monopoly attitudes and rarely exhibit consumer empathy (which is a nice way of saying their business models are built on customer imprisonment).
So our strongest expectations must turn to the first tier above, the consumer internet platforms. They have the most to lose — in trust and thus value — in taking government’s side against us.
At the Guardian Activate conference in London last month, I asked Vint Cerf, an architect of the net and evangelist for Google, about encrypting our communication as a defense against NSA spying. He suggested that communication should be encrypted into and out of internet companies’ servers (thwarting, or so we’d hope, the eavesdropping on the net’s every bit over telcos’ fibre) but should be decrypted inside the companies’ servers so they could bring us added value based on the content: a boarding pass on our phone, a reminder from our calendar, an alert about a story we’re following (not to mention a targeted ad).
Now there are reports that Google is looking at encrypting at least documents stored in Google Drive. That is wise in any case, as often these can contain users’ sensitive company and personal information. I now think Google et al need to go farther and make encryption an option on any information. I don’t want encryption to be the default because, in truth, most of my digital life is banal and I’d like to keep getting those handy calendar reminders. But technology companies need to put the option and power of data security directly into users’ hands.
That also means that the technology companies have to reach out and work with each other to enable encryption and other protections across their services. I learned the hard way how difficult it is to get simple answers to questions about how to encrypt email. The industry should work hard to make that an option on every popular service.
But let’s be clear that encryption is not the solution, probably only a speed bump to the NSA’s omnivorous ingesting. At the Activate conference, Cerf was asked whether the solution in the end will be technical or institutional. No doubt, institutional, he answered. That means that companies and government agencies must operate under stated principles and clear laws with open oversight.
Before Snowden’s leaks, technology CEOs would have had to balance cooperation and resistance just as the nation supposedly balances security and privacy. But now the tide of public opinion has clearly shifted — at least for now — and so this is the moment to grab control of issue.
If they do not assert that clear control, these technology companies risk losing business not only from skittish consumers but also from corporate and foreign-government clients. The Cloud Security Alliance polled companies and found that 10% had canceled U.S. cloud business and 56% were less likely to do business with U.S. providers. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” said European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out.”
Besides taking action to secure technology and oversight within their companies and the industry, right-thinking technology companies also need to band together to use their political capital to lobby governments across the world to protect the rights of users and the freedom and sanctity of privacy and speech on the net. They must take bold and open stands.
To do that, they must first decide on the principles they should protect. In my book Public Parts, I proposed some principles to discuss, among them:
* the idea that if any bit on the net is stopped or detoured — or spied upon — then no bit and the net itself cannot be presumed to be free;
* that the net must remain open and distributed, commandeered and corrupted by no government;
* that citizens have a right to speak, assemble, and act online and thus have a right to connect without fear;
* that privacy is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information and coming by it openly;
* and that government must become transparent by default and secret by necessity (there are necessary secrets). Edward Snowden has shown us all too clearly that the opposite is now true.
I also believe that we must see a discussion of principles and ethics from the technologists inside these companies. One reason I have given Google the benefit of the doubt — besides being an admirer — is that I believe the engineers I know inside Google would not stay if they saw it violating their ethics even if under government order.
Yonathan Zunger, the chief architect of Google+, said this after the Guardian’s and Glenn Greenwald’s first revelations were published:
I can tell you that it is a point of pride, both for the company and for many of us, personally, that we stand up to governments that demand people’s information…. I can categorically state that nothing resembling the mass surveillance of individuals by governments within our systems has ever crossed my plate. If it had, even if I couldn’t talk about it, in all likelihood I would no longer be working at Google.
In the end, it’s neither technologies nor institutions that will secure us from the inexorable overreach of government curiosity in the face of technical capability. Responsibility for oversight and correction begins with individuals, whether whistleblowers or renegade politicians or employees of conscience who finally remind those in power: “Don’t be evil.”
Google just demoted your television set into a second screen, a slave to your phone or tablet or laptop. With the $35 Chromecast you can with one click move anything you find on your internet-connected device — YouTube video, Netflix, a web page as well as music and pictures and soon, I’d imagine, games — onto your big TV screen, bypassing your cable box and all its ridiculous and expensive limitations.
Unlike Apple TV and Airplay, this does not stream from your laptop to the TV; this streams directly to your TV — it’s plugged into an HDMI port — over wi-fi via the cloud … er, via Google, that is. Oh, and it works with Apple iOS devices, too.
I’m just beginning to get a grasp on all the implications. Here are some I see.
* Simply put, I’ll end up watching more internet content because it’s so easy now. According to today’s demonstration, as soon as I tell Chrome to move something to my TV, the Chromecast device will sense the command and take over the TV. Nevermind smart TVs and cable boxes; the net is now in charge. There’s no more awkward searching using the world’s slowest typing via my cable box or a web-connected TV. There’s no more switching manually from one box to another. If it’s as advertised, I’ll just click on my browser and up it comes on my TV. Voila.
* Because Google issued an API, every company with web video — my beloved TWiT, for example — is motivated to add a Chromecast button to its content.
* Thus Google knows more about what you’re watching, which will allow it to make recommendations to you. Google becomes a more effective search engine for entertainment: TV Guide reborn at last.
* Google gets more opportunities to sell higher-priced video advertising on its content, which is will surely promote.
* Google gets more opportunities to sell you shows and movies from its Play Store, competing with both Apple and Amazon.
* YouTube gets a big boost in creating channels and building a new revenue stream: subscriptions. This is a paywall that will work simply because entertainment is a unique product, unlike news, which is — sorry to break the news to you — a commodity. I also wonder whether Google is getting a reward for all the Netflix subscriptions it will sell.
* TV is no longer device-dependant but viewer-dependant. I can start watching a show in one room then watch it another and then take it with me and watch on my tablet from where I left off.
* I can throw out the device with the worst user interface on earth: the cable remote. Now I can control video via my phone and probably do much more with it (again, I’m imagining new game interfaces).
* I can take a Chromecast with me on the road and use it in hotel rooms or in conference rooms to give presentations.
Those are implications for me as a user or viewer or whatever the hell I am now. That’s why I quickly bought three Chromecasts: one for the family room, one for my office, one for the briefcase and the road. What the hell, they’re cheap.
Harder to fully catalog are the implications for the industry — make that industries — affected. Too often, TV and the oligopolies that control it have been declared dead yet they keep going. One of these days, one of the bullets shot at them will hit the heart. Is this it?
* Cable is hearing a loud, growing snipping sound on the horizon. This makes it yet easier for us all to cut the cord. This unravels their bundling of channels. I’ll never count these sharks out. But it looks like it could be Sharknado for them. I also anticipate them trying to screw up our internet bandwidth every way they can: limiting speeds and downloading or charging us through the nose for decent service if we use Chromecast — from their greedy perspective — “too much.”
* Networks should also start feeling sweaty, for there is even less need for their bundling when we can find the shows and stars we want without them. The broadcast networks will descend even deeper into the slough of crappy reality TV. Cable networks will find their subsidies via cable operators’ bundles threatened. TV — like music and news — may finally come unbundled. But then again, TV networks are the first to run for the lifeboats and steal the oars. I remember well the day when ABC decided to stream Desperate Housewives on the net the morning after it aired on broadcast, screwing its broadcast affiliates. They’d love to do the same to cable MSOs. Will this give them their excuse?
* Content creators have yet another huge opportunity to cut out two layers of middlemen and have direct relationships with fans, selling them their content or serving them more targeted and valuable ads. Creators can be discovered directly. But we know how difficult it is to be discovered. Who can help? Oh, yeah, Google.
Yes, Apple could throw out its Apple TV and shift to this model. But it’s disadvantaged against Google because it doesn’t offer the same gateway to the entire wonderful world of web video; it offers things it makes deals for, things it wants to sell us.
* Amazon? Hmmm. On the one hand, if I can more easily shift things I buy at Amazon onto my TV screen — just as I read Kindle books on my Google Nexus 7 table, not on an Amazon Kindle. But Amazon is as much a control freak as Apple and I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos is laughing that laugh of his right now.
* Advertisers will see the opportunity to directly subsidize content and learn more about consumers through direct relationships, no longer mediated by both channels and cable companies. (That presumes that advertisers and their agencies are smart enough to build audiences rather than just buying mass; so far, too many of them haven’t been.) Though there will be more entertainment behind pay walls, I think, there’ll still be plenty of free entertainment to piggyback on.
* Kids in garages with cameras will find path to the big screen is now direct if anybody wants to watch their stuff.