Category Sergey Brin

A Sergey update: we misunderstood him

Sergey Brin has posted a response to the Guardian’s interview with him. (He posted it on Google Plus which means I have been on Google Plus twice now! Watch out Facebook!)

One clarification is particularly relevant to my previous comments:

I became an entrepreneur during the 90’s, the boom time of what you might now call Web 1.0. Yahoo created a directory of all the sites they could find without asking anyone for permission.

Today, starting such a service would entail navigating a number of new tollbooths and gatekeepers.

This is the most explicit I have seen Google be about one of their fundamental disagreements with things like copyright. He objects to the need for permission. He sees the need to get permission from someone else as fundamentally at odds with entrepreneurialism. It’s easy to see how that view is incompatible with the whole idea of copyright.

It’s also a clear enunciation of why Google is in a poor position to lead this debate. It’s obvious that a business which depends on the agreement of someone else, particularly in the IP field, would be advantaged if they could just do as they pleased regardless of whether that person agreed or not. Many businesses would love to be freed from regulatory and commercial restrictions, simply be able to ignore the rights and interests of others when they are inconvenient. That doesn’t make it right, though, even when the restriction makes it harder or even impossible to do certain kinds of business and “innovate” in certain ways.

The “tollbooths” and “gateways” which Sergey objects to have, in relation to copyright anyway, always been there. The law has never said it’s OK to just copy, keep and exploit anything you want, regardless of whether you have permission. If, as a consequence of the legal reality being ignored, some people have set up systems which technically restrict what the law has always restricted anyway that’s more likely a response to their interests being damaged than a fundamental shift in anything. Reality, you could say, is finally biting.

In truth, unfair advantages lead to unfair outcomes. Google is a massive and mind-bogglingly rich company, run by some of the most mind-bogglingly rich young scamps in the world, and the largest and most powerful aggregator of content and data ever seen. It has become so by exploiting content created by others. Even if this has by-and-large been done with tacit or “implied” permission, the idea that it doesn’t require permission in law or in reality, has never been true. So when some people decide that they don’t like it anymore, and prevent their content and data from being accessed by Google, it might not suit Google but it also is fundamentally wrong to present it as a threat to anything other than Google’s commercial interests.

Permission is the bedrock of copyright and so of professional creativity. When Google argues that their service and others should be exempt from the need for permission, they are arguing not for the interests of society at large, or entrepreneurs, or innovation, or free speech. They’re arguing for the interests of their shareholders.

Google should stop whinging and instead go out there and do some deals which work for their suppliers as well as themselves.

Policy makers, in the meantime, should take note.

The internet wants to be open, but some internets are more open than others

Sergey Brin of Google had a discussion with The Guardian and talked about his vision for the future of the internet, alongside his concerns about threats to that vision.

It’s an incredible insight into his (and Google’s) world view, which seems to be from a truly unique perspective. There is nobody else who sits astride the internet like Google and it seems that from the top, the sense of entitlement to be the masters of all they survey is strong.

Take this quote, from towards the end of the piece:

If we could wave a magic wand and not be subject to US law, that would be great. If we could be in some magical jurisdiction that everyone in the world trusted, that would be great … We’re doing it as well as can be done

I’m not sure what this “magical jurisdiction” would be but it doesn’t sound like Sergey wants it to be based on US law, and there’s no sign that Google has any greater love for any other existing jurisdiction. I wonder if he’s thinking that perhaps it should be a Google-defined jurisdiction? After all, Google is fond of saying that the trust of users is their key asset – they presumably consider themselves to be highly trusted. I wonder if the magic wand is in development somewhere deep in their bowels? Perhaps one of their robotic cars can wave it when the time comes! Google can declare independence from the world…

But why should we trust them? There’s almost nothing they do which you can’t find fierce critics to match their army of adoring fans. Without deconstructing them all, surely the point is this: whenever a single entity (be it a government, company or individual) has complete control over any marketplace, territory or network, bad things tend to happen. Accountability, checks-and-balances, the rule of law, democratically enacted, are all ways of trying to ensure that power does not achieve its natural tendency to corrupt.

Google asks us to just trust it. And many people do.

Another quote:

There’s a lot to be lost,” he said. “For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.

The phrasing is interesting. Is is really true that because data in apps is not crawlable it is “lost”? I use apps all the time, and the data appears to be available to me. I don’t think the fact that it’s not available to Google means it’s “lost” (except I suppose to Google). Defining something that is not visible to Google as “lost” suggests not just that Google considers that it should be able to see and keep everything that exists online, but also that they have an omniscient role that should not be subject to the normal rules of business or law. Like people being able to choose who they deal with and on what terms. Or being able to choose who copies and keeps their copyright works.

The “lost” app data could, of course, easily be made available to Google if the owner chose. Brin’s complaint seems to be that Google can’t access it without the owner deciding it’s OK – there is a technical obstacle which can’t simply be ignored. Yet all they have to do, surely, is persuade the owners to willingly open the door: hardly a controversial challenge in the world of business. It’s called doing a deal, isn’t it?

Here’s what he had to say in relation to Facebook

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.

Another telling insight. Too many rules stifle innovation. Rules are bad.

Hard to agree with even as a utopian ideal (utopia isn’t usually synonymous with anarchy), but even less so when you consider the reality of dealing with Google. I have visited various Google offices at various times and have always been asked to sign in using their “NDA machine” at reception. Everyone has to do it. You have to sign an NDA simply to walk into their offices. The first rule of Google is you can’t talk about Google. Hardly the most open environment – they are the only company I have ever visited which insists on this.

Of course, Google is no stranger to rules either. They set their own rules and don’t offer room for discussion or adjustment. When they crawl websites, for example, they copy and keep everything they find, indefinitely. They have an ambition to copy and keep all the information on the internet, and eventually the world. Their own private, closed, internet. This is a rule you have to play by.

Even if you ban crawling on some or all of your site using robots.txt, they crawl it anyway but just exclude the content from search results (this was explained to me by a senior Google engineer a few years ago and as far as I know it has not changed). If you want to set some of your own rules, using something like ACAP or just by negotiating with them, good luck: they refuse to implement things like ACAP and rarely negotiate.

“You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive”

Here’s an interesting story. A while ago, Google refused to include content in their search results if clicking on the link would lead a user to a paywall. They said it was damaging to the user experience if they couldn’t read the content they had found with Google (another Google rule: users must be able to click on links they find and see the content without any barriers or restrictions). However it also meant users couldn’t find content they knew they wanted, for example from some high-profile newspapers like the FT and Wall Street Journal.

So Google introduced a programme called “First Click Free“. It set some rules (more rules!) for content owners to get their content included in Google search even if it was “restricted” behind a paywall. It doesn’t just set rules for how to allow Google’s crawlers to access the content without filling in a registration form, but also the conditions you have to fulfill – primarily that anybody clicking a link to “restricted” content from Google search needs to be allowed to view it immediately, without registration or payment.

This is a Google rule which you have to play by, unless you are willing to be excluded from all their search results. Not only is it technically demanding, it also fails to take account of different business models and the need for businesses to be flexible.

Unfortunately it was also wide open to abuse. Many people quickly realised they could read anything on paid sites just by typing the headline into a Google search.

Eventually Google made some changes. Here’s how they announced them:

we’ve decided to allow publishers to limit the number of accesses under the First Click Free policy to five free accesses per user each day 

They have “decided to allow” publishers to have a slightly amended business model. Publishers need permission from Google to implement a Google-defined business model (or suffer the huge impact of being excluded from search), and now they are allowed to vary it slightly.

For a company which objects to the idea of having to play by someone else’s rules, they’re not too bothered about imposing some of their own.

Which brings me back to trust. If Google want a world in which they have access to scan, store and use all “data” from everywhere, where they don’t have to play by the “restrictive” rules or laws (like copyright) set by others – even their own government – don’t they need to start thinking about their demand for openness both ways round? Rather than rejecting rules which don’t suit them (such as “US law”) shouldn’t they try to get them changed; argue and win their case or accept defeat graciously? Shouldn’t they stop imposing rules on those whose rules they reject, ignore or decry?

Google is a very closed company. Little they do internally is regarded by them as being “open”, and they build huge and onerous barriers to protect their IP, secrets and data. Even finding out what Google know about you, or what copies of your content they have, is virtually impossible; changing or deleting it even harder.

They ask us to trust them. We would be unwise to do so, any more than we trust any monopolies or closed regimes which define their own rules. It wouldn’t matter so much but for their huge dominance, influence and reach. They have, it is said, personal data on more than a billion people all of whom are expected to trust them unquestioningly.

Surely the first step to earning, rather than simply assuming, that trust is that they need to start behaving towards others in the way they demand others treat them.

Openness cuts both ways, Sergey. How about starting by practicing what you preach and opening Google up fully?

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