Rivalry keeps Google from evil: Doctorow

Competition keeps Google doing good because there’s a perceived advantage to it, argues author and activist Cory Doctorow. By Craig Wilson.

Cory Doctorow - image by Katsoulis Photography (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cory Doctorow – image by Katsoulis Photography (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Writer and activist Cory Doctorow says competition keeps Google behaving ethically because it believes there are benefits to be had. However, as it moves into sectors where it faces fewer rivals this may not always be the case.

“In the areas where Google actively competes, its ‘don’t be evil’ motto really seems to come to the fore,” says Doctorow, who was in Johannesburg this week to speak at an Internet Service Providers’ Association conference.

“It actually seems to be a quality metric. They believe they can attract customers, independent software vendors, resellers and an ecosystem around them by not being evil,” he says. “Where they operate in narrower, less competitive markets — like where they’ve become an Internet service provider, for example — they abandon those commitments.”

Google has begun offering fibre-optic connections, and thus is acting as an ISP, in parts of the US.

“Now that they’re a fibre ISP, they’ve come out against ‘Net neutrality. There are rules that require them to allow customers to run servers at the terminus of their fibre, but they want to be able to sell a business package and an individual package and they fear that if anyone’s allowed to run a server they won’t be able to do that tiering,” Doctorow says.

“And so they’ve petitioned the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] for a relaxation to the rules governing network neutrality so they can discriminate against customers based on what kind of applications they’re running.

“Meanwhile, where the ISPs have tried to actually charge customers extra money to access Google services, Google has been one of the great advocates for network neutrality and has filed comments with the FCC arguing very strongly for network neutrality.”

Doctorow says this is not an isolated case.

“In the same way, when Google became a partner with Verizon in offering a mobile service, they advocated against network neutrality in mobile services. They said Verizon should be able to give preferential service to Google applications at the expense of competing applications.

“You can see that competitive pressure — although it’s not the entire story — really does make companies compete more on user friendliness and on supplying a good deal.”

The worry, perhaps, is that companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have to juggle various agendas: those of their shareholders, those of their users and those of governments.

“I specifically worry that because Google and Facebook and other companies have bought into the idea that lurking in these enormous data sets are the correlations that will allow them to root out causal connections between some stimulus and some action on your part — ‘if we show these things in this order, you’ll buy this’ — and that that will be so valuable to them that they’re retaining everything.

“I don’t actually believe those correlations are there; I think that we are much more complex than the big data advocates would have us believe. But a consequence of storing all that data is you invite government’s to pass laws giving them access to it. There I think we have a real concern.”  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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