Should we be “afraid of Google?”
Search me. 🙂
Putting that obligatory pun behind us, my friend Chris Lumb asked me to comment on a recent story about the dominance of Internet firms like Google and Facebook. The CEO of German publisher Axel Springer said “We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly.” Le Monde said that Google was “the road to serfdom.”
As always, I am not going to comment specifically about Google, Facebook, Axel Springer or Le Monde. All of the thoughts below are purely my own personal views. They are informed by my 25 years as a technology analyst, but also my academic background which included some primary research on the role of publishers in US history.
So I will try to answer the broader questions of “should we fear excessive concentration of power in a single technology company that influences the flows of information…and if so, how much should we fear it?”
The first part is easy. Yes. Any company that controls 75% of search or social media or the cloud or just about ANYTHING related to the flow of information is worth worrying about. We need to keep our eye on them, always alert for signs they are abusing that dominant position. But I have two additional thoughts that suggest that while we need to be vigilant, our fear needs to be reasonable.
We’re Talking Tech
There are industries where dominant players can enjoy their leading positions for decades. But tech usually ain’t one of them.
First, market leaders can rapidly become followers or even distant also-rans. Not to mention any social media companies by name, of course. Cough <Myspace> cough. Even more frequently, market dominance in any given area can be made irrelevant by the changes in the tech ecosystem. At one time, everybody used to worry about IBM controlling the mainframe and minicomputer markets. IBM still leads in those areas, but nobody cares that much anymore because Microsoft and Intel built the PC industry. Then people worried about those two being too dominant; but the proliferation of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets (mainly with processors and software different than those that dominate the PC space) means that those concerns have now receded almost completely.
Will Google no longer be the search leader 10 years from now? I have no idea. But even if they are still as dominant as they are today, I would argue that something (perhaps autonomous agents that bypass human-initiated searches?) will make being a search leaders less-important and therefore less-feared. That’s the way market dominance in tech almost always works.
King Log and King Stork
Aesop’s story was that changing leaders can make things worse: the frogs hated the sleepy rule of King Log, but later realised that running away from hungry King Stork was a serious downgrade! The Who told us to “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” When my wife Barbara is asked for an explanation, as part of her response, she nearly always says “Compared to what?”
I know almost nothing about Axel Springer, myself, but a quick glance at their Wikipedia page shows that some Germans used to worry (a lot) about Axel Springer having a too dominant position, with nearly 24% of the national publishing market. Refusing to run ads from certain parties, accusations of biased coverage, that sort of thing. I am not commenting whether or not these are true, but I will say that media concentration in the publishing industry has been a significant problem in many places.
Back in 1988 I did a lengthy primary research study on publishers in America. Back in those days that involved going through microfiches and microfilms of newspaper and magazines on big readers (not digital.)
Even with much less than 24% national market share, various US newspaper and magazine publishers fanned the flames of anti-Asian racism in the 1870s, anti-Semitism in the 1930s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the Hearst and Pulitzer papers unequivocally played a key role in propelling the US into war with Spain in the 1890s. Millions saw their civil rights compromised in part or in whole, and tens of thousands of deaths during the war, on both sides, and in both Cuba and the Philippines. “Remember the Maine”, indeed.
Given that standard, even when new digital companies have dominant positions, it’s hard to imagine how they will be as bad as, let alone worse than, some of the companies that have previously controlled the flows of information, media, words and public opinion.
That’s not just newspaper publishers, but all of books, radio and TV have all contributed to horrible things at various times. Further, it isn’t just the media who can exert undue influence. Libraries were sole repositories of information in the pre-digital age; playing a role similar to the one that Google does today. Not only were they harder to use and access than Google, but they burned down and lost stuff too! Much more importantly, they were run by librarians, who refused to keep certain books on their shelves, restricting the flow of information at a level of censorship that would seem outrageous today.
So ask yourself, is the world of information access under Google better or worse than what came before it?
You can roll your eyes at the Google motto of “do no evil” and I do too sometimes. No company is perfect, and one can always look at the actions of Google or Facebook (or any dominant internet company) and honestly believe they are up to no good in this instance or that one. There are examples where these companies are accused of using their market influence to increase their power, or even bully partners or cow competitors. They acquiesce to government information requests in ways we might not all agree on.
But to the best of my knowledge, they haven’t given any sign that they are actively trying to hurt individuals, human rights, the developing world, women, the LGBT community, Wiccans or wombats. I understand the argument that power corrupts, but until these companies start acting in ways that at least plausibly plunge the world into a new form of serfdom, I think we need to be cautious on the rhetoric and the fear.