Earlier this week, Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, gave an interview to The Guardian in which he expressed concern over Internet freedom—freedom from governments, from corporations, and from so-called “walled gardens” like Facebook and Apple. Most would find Brin’s concerns over government censorship well founded, but might balk at his characterization of Facebook and Apple. The Guardian explains his position:
The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.
So why is Google afraid of Facebook and Apple, enough to lump them in with oppressive governments as threats to freedom? Well, maybe they’re truly worried about freedom. But also possible is that Facebook and Apple they don’t play by Google’s rules. Brin even says so in his interview— “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive. The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the Web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.” This may be true, but many would argue that private companies really have the ability to do what they will with their own technology.
Without access to the the worlds 3rd largest site (Facebook) and one of the world’s largest online retailers for music, movies and apps (iTunes) Google is being cut off from two potentially large sources of revenue. Without the ability to crawl Facebook, Google is missing out on a treasure trove of data on almost 1 billion users. This is valuable data that Google would love to be free and open, so it could be collected and sold to its customers. Dan Frommer at ReadWriteWeb does an excellent job explaining just how powerful Facebook’s advertising targeting is, and why Google might be so envious of it. And without access to iTunes, Google probably feels cut off from a huge emerging sector—the mobile web and the associated app market. It’s evident Google desperately wants to be involved in these markets,–hence, their launch of Google+ and Google Play.
Many users of Google’s free products wrongly believe that they are Google customers. Truthfully, the average Internet user is the product. Google makes billions by collecting information on Internet users, storing it (oftentimes without their knowledge) and selling it to their customers—companies who purchase advertisements. And you don’t have to use a Google owned website in order to be the product Google is selling. They work with millions of smaller websites to install their cookies so your movements can be tracked. Because of this business model, Google brought in nearly $38 billion in revenue last year, 96% of it from advertising.
Don’t misunderstand—it’s a completely legitimate business model, one that’s created thousands of jobs, generated billions in of commerce for the economy, generated more billions in profits for thousands of shareholders, and has had an unquantifiable impact on the worlds technological innovations. I point all this out to show that the complaints over freedom are might seem hollow coming from Google. Facebook users accept a terms of service, and for the most part, most users know their information is being stored and used by Facebook and its advertisers. Apple sells you a product, and the consumer knowingly hands over his or her money, knowing full well that they’re somewhat restricted in the use of the product, whether its by how many copies they’re allowed to make, or if their iProducts can work outside of Apple environments. Many consumers might enjoy the privacy that Facebook and Apple can afford, something they haven’t been getting from Google recently.
Brin says that Google wouldn’t exist without an open Internet. Certainly, Google built its dominance based on an Internet where everything was open and users could easily be tracked. The open Internet made Brin rich beyond probably his wildest dreams. And this is what Brin and Google executives are most likely worried about (and rightfully so) more than anything—Google losing its spot at the top of the Internet heap. It seems as though Brin and Google might be less worried about Internet freedom, and more worried about data they can collect and subsequent ad dollars they can collect.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute