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Friday, September 12, 2008

Googlephobia: The Series
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By Berin Szoka & Adam Thierer

With Google celebrating its 10th anniversary this week, many panicky pundits are using the occasion to claim that Google has become the Great "Satan" of the Internet. Nick Carr wonders what the future holds for "The OmniGoogle." The normally level-headed Mike Malone worries that Google is "turning into Big Brother." And Washington Post's Rob Dubbin says that he can't escape Google's "tentacles," even for just 24 hours. Meanwhile, speculation abounds that the Justice Department is preparing a major antitrust lawsuit against Google concerning its advertising partnership with Yahoo! or perhaps even a broader suit concerning Google's "dominance" of online advertising generally.

Carr quotes Google co-founder Sergey Brin's now-famous 2003 interview:

I think people tend to exaggerate Google's significance in both directions. Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan. But if they think Google is too powerful, remember that with search engines, unlike other companies, all it takes is a single click to go to another search engine. People come to Google because they choose to. We don't trick them.

In the last five years, Google has become far more than just a search engine. As Google's suite of suite of complementary products continues to grow, so too does the specter of Google as an all-knowing and therefore all-powerful economic colossus. Yet Google isn't even close to being the sort of nefarious monopolist out to destroy user privacy at every turn, as some seem to imply--if not exclaim. Indeed, in our view, the Net is overall a far better place because of the existence of Google and the many free services it provides consumers.

Our point is not that Google should be immune from criticism. Indeed, healthy criticism of corporate actions plays a vital role in the free market by disciplining corporate policies and behavior--often thus providing an effective alternative to government regulation. This is particularly important in the area of consumer privacy protection, as demonstrated by Google's quick response to public concern about its Chrome EULA.

We hold no brief for Google and our aim is not to be Google apologists. In fact, we've had more than a few run-ins with Google on many important policy issues in the past (e.g., on net neutrality, spectrum policy, and the need for "baseline Federal privacy legislation") and will likely continue to do so in the future. We are always willing to engage serious, rational discussions about other policy issues involving Google, such as concerns about its alleged market power, but it seems to us that the hysteria about Google's supposed dominance of the Internet is clouding rational discussion of the policy issues raised by Google, its innovations and its success. Indeed, the creeping paranoia about all things Google-related that is most evident throughout the blogosphere (but that reaches far beyond it) has produced an environment that resembles nothing so much as a lynch mob: Angry, short-tempered, out for corporate blood, and unwilling to engage in reasoned discussion.

Gates_of_BorgThe specter of Google's market power driving--and confusing--so many of today's Internet policy debates is reminiscent of the previous generation of conspiracy theories about how Microsoft, like the Borg (perhaps sci-fi's scariest villains), would assimilate all in its path--forever controlling the digital revolution. We don't want Google to become the victim of the same regulatory & antitrust ordeal that Microsoft has endured over the past decade, with the kind of hysterical claims of Chicken Little-ism that drove a ten-year crusade against Microsoft. Short-sighted, heavy-handed government intervention can cripple a creative company while doing little to actually benefit consumers because regulators cannot keep pace with technological change--perhaps the only constant fact in the every-changing digital world.

Of course, like all temporal things, Microsoft's seemingly permanent "monopoly" has faded, and the bulk of the criticism it once faced has shifted focus to Google. Microsoft continues to be the subject of many unfair attacks because of its success (a/k/a "dominance") in the OS, office product, and browser markets. Other companies have experienced similar attacks on a smaller scale: Facebook and the once-angelic Apple have both been subject to increasing criticism for their success in certain sectors of the digital economy, customer complaints about openness (e.g., "locked" devices or portability of social networking data) and privacy policies. The hysteria surrounding Google is not unique in kind, yet it is clear that the mantle of "Great (digital) Satan" has clearly passed from Microsoft to Google.

Thus, we have decided to start a new series of essays on "Googlephobia" (a term that seems to have taken off in the spring of 2005, when the French government seriously proposed creating its own alternative to the Google search engine). We've already penned a few essays on the topic here (as have a number of our TLF colleagues) and, therefore, our next installment in the series will be #5--in which we will outline the many competitors to Google's many products.

But here are a few of our past essays on the topic, which clearly belong on the list even though they weren't part of a series at the time:

And here's an oldie on the same topic:

posted by Berin Szoka @ 3:14 PM | Internet , Privacy

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