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The Public Service Internet

January 14th, 2014 · No Comments

When Google extends its grasp on our personal data by acquiring yet another company, there are three responses you can take:

1. Boycott Google services (Gmail, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Docs, Android, Chrome, etc.) and hope that if enough people follow, they’ll be forced to change their policies on advertising and retention. This may require you to lower your standards, since the open-source or otherwise ‘friendly’ replacements are not always as good as Google; moving to another VC-funded company’s services is not the answer as they may also be acquired by Google, or emulate their practices.

2. Decide that you don’t really care that much and continue to use Google. Perhaps the cost and hassle of switching would be too much, or perhaps you simply don’t believe that the data that Google holds and its reach across the internet (and increasingly, the ‘real world’) is really that bad in comparison to other bad things happening in the world.

3. Contribute time and resources towards the development and maintenance of alternatives to Google services that inherently cannot adopt Google’s practices (such as their blithe disregard for people’s contact information) — that is, non-profit and/or open source alternatives.

Full disclosure: I use Google services all the time. I’m typing this in Chrome, and I have Google Mail, Calendar, Docs, and Play Music open. I’ve taken a trip in an Uber taxi. My company receives a substantial amount of its income from selling apps on the Google Play Store, and I’ve given a talk at their campus in Mountain View. I also use plenty of services that Google might reasonably buy in the future, such as Dropbox, Foursquare, and Medium.

I’m not here to castigate you. I’m just as much of a hypocrite as everyone else. But the vociferous reaction to Google buying Nest has demonstrated that a lot of people are concerned about where Google might be going.

The question is, why are people concerned?

Let’s stipulate that Sergey Brin and Larry Page both appear to be nice guys and that they really don’t have any evil intentions. Let’s further acknowledge that life pre-Google was not an innocent paradise free of ads. There is a reason why so many people use Google, and that’s because it’s very useful.

No-one had a problem with Google when they were the scrappy upstarts taking on the evil Microsofts of the world, with their antitrust violations and crushing of the competition; in fact, many of us cheered them. They made slip-ups but they weren’t as significant simply because Google had fewer users and less data. Today, Google is arguably the front door to the internet for a billion people. Their slip-ups and lapses affect the entire world and entire lives.

There’s another problem: Google is a publicly-held company. The reason this is a problem is clearly illustated by a headline from the New York Times today:

Hampered by Legal Costs, JPMorgan’s Profit Falls 7.3%

When I first scanned this, I mentally thought, “Yeah, take that you evil, law-breaking bankers! This time, you’ll lose mo-… oh wait, their profit fell by 7.3%.” So instead of making $5.7 billion this quarter, they only made a $5.3 billion. That’s news. It‘s a pretty nice problem to have, but don’t get me wrong, I understand why this bothers shareholders. They want to see growth, otherwise they’d invest in another company.

Google needs to grow, and grow, and grow. If it doesn’t, the shareholders will leave.

Stagnation is not enough. Slow growth is not enough. They must enter and dominate more and more industries, with shopping, home automation, payments, and transportation clearly very high on their list. And if not Google, then one of their rivals like Amazon or Alibaba. Perhaps Sergey and Larry don’t even want Google to grow that quickly, but they just consider Google to be the lesser evil. So they have no alternative.

What about the acquirees, though? Nest didn’t have to sell to Google, they could have stayed independent, right? Raised more money from investors, released more products, bought up rival home appliance makers, extended their online services. But I assume they’re pretty smart and they thought Google’s $3.2 billion offer was a good deal. In any case there’s no guarantee that Nest wouldn’t have turned ‘evil’ in some other way; it’s a company, and no CEO is irreplaceable.

You can’t rely on founders not to sell their companies to Google. You can buy almost anyone out for a few million or billion (and remember, we already stipulated that Sergey and Larry aren’t actually evil). They’d never have to worry about money again for the rest of their lives. Who wouldn’t want that?

Make something that can’t be bought

If you don’t like how Google acts, then don’t just flee to another company’s services in the hope that they’ll behave nicer. Help foster non-profit services that will not and cannot act in the way that Google does. Help make the Public Service Internet.

The Public Service Internet already exists, in part, in Wikipedia and Mozilla and OpenStreetMap and Archive.org and the Linux community, among many open source efforts and non-profit organisations. No doubt many of us already donate to those organisations. Here’s some news for you: it isn’t enough, not by half.

Have you heard of the concept of consumer surplus? It’s when something is sold for less than what the consumer would have paid for it. Some people believe that the internet as a whole represents a massive consumer surplus running into the hundreds of billions. We can thank companies like Google among others for that surplus—but we can also expect them to come and collect, one day.

If you’re reading this article, the internet matters more to you than it does to most. It’s time to put your surplus to use. Time to put up or shut up. If you want something like Google Search without the possibility that it could turn evil, that’ll take a lot of money.

Don’t have a lot of money? Write documentation for Mozilla. Improve articles on Wikipedia. Map your local area on OpenStreetMap (I did this last week, it’s a lot of fun!). None of these services are perfect and they can all use your help.

They can also use your voice. Be an advocate for them. Don’t tear them down because they’re not as good as Chrome or Google Maps; they don’t have billions of dollars behind them. If someone tries to make a better Facebook, don’t judge them harshly if they only have $200,000 and have spent just a year in development.

Money isn’t the only thing that motivates us—not even hackers and startup founders. Give someone a proper salary, good security, and the opportunity to work on something that matters, and there’s a decent chance they’ll do a good job—just look at what the UK’s Government Digital Service has achieved in the last few years.

What would it take to build a better Google Search, or a better Google Mail? $10 million? $100 million? $1 billion? How long would it take? Two years? Five years?

We can afford that. Don’t tell me we can’t. We’re going to live to 80 and we’re among the richest people in the world. Let’s take some responsibility and leave the internet a better place than we found it.

Tags: tech

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