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Google Hysteria, or a Conversation We Need to Have?

In his much-quoted Guardian op-ed piece, Henry Porter slammed Google this weekend in a pretty serious way. Here’s a clip that gives an idea of his angst, but I suggest you read the full piece to get his complete argument, which touches on the copyright issues of Google’s Book Search archiving initiative:

“If indeed a new era of global responsibility has come into being with measures that actually restrain banks and isolate tax havens, it may be time for the planet’s dominant economic powers to focus on the destructive, anti-civic forces of the internet…Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.”

In response to the column, John Lanchester, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, offered a more measured evaluation of Google, specifically looking at their Street View, Book Search, and Voice services.

This issue, in all its various forms, isn’t going to go away. Book Search, Street View and many of Google’s other offerings simply bulldoze existing ideas of how things are and how they should be done. I was highly critical of Gmail when it first came in, on the grounds that the superbly effective mail system came at the unacceptable price of allowing Google to scan all emails and place text ads. But I soon began using it, because it was free, and because it’s such good software, and because I frankly never noticed the ads…Then about a month ago my hard drive suddenly crashed, and my backup, while it saved photos and music, failed to restore my work archive. I was facing a gigantic bill for a by-no-means guaranteed hard drive recovery, when it occurred to me that every piece I’d ever sent by email might, just might . . . and sure enough there it was on Gmail. A copy of everything I’d ever written for publication, and everything else I’d ever emailed too. It’s the kind of thing a big brother might do, help you in ways which make you feel simultaneously relieved and resentful.”

I think there are two issues at play here. The first is the question of whether a company of Google’s size and scope, despite their subsidization of many useful and popular productivity tools, is good for society. Porter clearly feels that the answer is no, emphasizing that by offering multiple free replacements of previously expensive tools made by companies like Microsoft, Google has turned it’s users into content generation slaves feeding their advertising beast that they keep shrewdly “invisible.” After all, it is slightly ironic that Google’s currency is advertising, yet most users of its services come to the same conclusion after just a short time using them: “I hardly even notice the ads anymore.” But is it fundamentally wrong for a company to offer a mutually beneficial relationship to its customers? Google gives us free productivity tools, we use them and willingly give them content in return. Isn’t that what capitalism is? Yes, this means our previously private communications become slightly less private, but nobody is being forced to use Google’s Gmail.

Berzin Szoka, from the Technology Liberation Front, slams Porter in return on the grounds that his anti-Google diatribe was too extreme. While his delivery was over the top, I do think that Porter’s point of view is valid and should be discussed. In any case, Szoka writes:

Porter says not a word about Google’s role as an economic fountainhead of online innovation and creativity. He simply dismisses Google as “delinquent and sociopathic.” One might dismiss Porter as just another crank in the “Long Tail of Googlephobia,” but his 188-year-old newspaper, The Guardian, is among the world’s most respected. With a circulation 1/3 that of the New York Times and 1/2 that of The Washington Post (in a nation five times smaller than the U.S.), The Guardian is serious when it claims to be “the world’s leading liberal voice.”

The second issue is a bit clearer to me, and that is whether some of Google’s tools are violating copyright and privacy. Specifically with Google’s Book Search, Google has reached it’s current legal standing by first violating copyright law. Tim Lee, another Technology Liberation Front writer, sheds some light on that

:

Any competitor that wants to get the same legal immunity Google is getting will have to take the same steps Google did: start scanning books without the publishers’ and authors’ permission, get sued by authors and publishers as a class, and then negotiate a settlement.

Clearly this is not a cut-and-dry issue. But is Google slowly eroding our sensibilities of what is public and what is private? Do we need to have this conversation in order to prevent handing over too much power and information to one entity?

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