googlecracyThe German-French axis is heating the debate against Google in Europe. Last month of April we have seen a thrilling battle of ideas in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung around the “best practices” of the all-mighty search engine company.

On the same day, April 3, Germany’s FAZ and France’s Le Monde, published a couple of opinion pieces: “Angst vor Google” (“Fear of Google”) by entrepreneur Robert M. Maier, and “Google ou la route de la servitude” (“Google or the road to serfdom”) by economist Pascal de Lima. They charged against the dominant position of Google which is becoming suffocating.

Google has more than 70% global market share (more than 90% in Germany). Google manipulates search results in obscure non-disclosed ways, pushing its own products and discriminating against competitors. And worse, Google’s monopoly reaches far beyond market boundaries. Google is becoming to know more about us than us ourselves.

Eric Schmidt replied with a short “pret-a-porter” answer, “A chance for Growth”, where he criticized the passivity of the EU and its fondness for regulation

The pieces attack the entire Internet and its magic which gives anyone, anywhere access to previously hard-to-find information.

While many other European publishers including such marquee names as the Telegraph and the Guardian have signed similar partnerships, some publishers in Europe still seem to believe that the best way forward lies in calling for heavy-handed regulation, pushing for new copyright charges on links to their articles and calling for antitrust action against companies such as Facebook, Amazon and us.

(regulation) risks creating an innovation desert in Europe. Some companies will leave and, worse still, others will never get off the ground – blocked by rules designed to protect incumbents (…) On a continent in search of economic hope, the Internet represents the main motor of economic growth.

Eric’s arrogant answer identifying “Google” with “the Internet” provoked a series of neat answers which are worth reading for all interested in one of the most interesting intellectual battles of our time: the fight for absolute power in the Digital World.

In an open letter to Eric Schmidt, Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, confesses his company’s total dependence on Google. Making evident his own contradictions as a profiteer from Google’s traffic and as a profiteer from Google’s automated marketing of advertising, he feels his company is a victim of Google’s data and market power:

What publishers are experiencing today is a sign of things to come: we will soon all belong to Google. Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google.

Mathias goes far beyond the threats to the publishing sector in Europe, to the heart of the matter: This is not a debate about technology and the fascinating opportunities it presents. This is a political debate:

You yourself said in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is a remarkably honest sentence.

Ever since then I have thought about this sentence again and again. I find it terrible. I know that it was certainly not meant that way. Behind this statement there is a state of mind and an image of humanity that is typically cultivated in totalitarian regimes – not in liberal societies. Such a statement could also have come from the head of East Germany’s Stasi or other secret police in service of a dictatorship. The essence of freedom is precisely the fact that I am not obliged to disclose everything that I am doing, that I have a right to confidentiality and, yes, even to secrets; that I am able to determine for myself what I wish to disclose about myself. The individual right to this is what makes a democracy. Only dictatorships want transparent citizens instead of a free press.

Mathias is convinced that Google’s advantage cannot be beaten with economic resources alone:

16 years of data storage and 16 years’ experience by tens of thousands of IT developers has established a competitive edge which can no longer be offset with economic resources alone. Since Google bought “Nest” it knows in even more detail what people do within their own four walls. And now Google is also planning driverless cars, in order to compete in the long term with the car industry from Toyota to VW. Google will then not only know where we drive our cars but how we are occupying ourselves when we are in the car. Forget Big Brother – Google is better!

Historically, monopolies have never survived in the long term. Either they have failed as a result of their complacency, which breeds its own success, or they have been weakened by competition – both unlikely scenarios in Google’s case. Or they have been restricted by political initiatives. IBM and Microsoft are the most recent examples.

Monopolies eventually fall. The question is when and how. In the follow-up “Almighty Google: Whoever owns our data will determine our fate”,  Jaron Lanier argues that no country will be able to wrestle down the monopolist by means of regulation:

you can’t break up Google in the way that other companies have been broken up, because it only makes money in one way from one narrow, indivisible business.

Similarly, there is no way to break the business into data spied from cars, homes, retail stores, or phones, because data from one type of sensor migrates freely to the others. Our phones already interface with our cars and with shops we visit, for instance.

The idea of regulating what can be done with data is hopeless because any possible law can be routed around by a clever architecture or algorithm. We have long seen a clear example in the way that bluntly stated copyright laws were routinely outmanoeuvred online over the last 15 years.

The idea that individuals will decide how much information to share based on setting preferences is based on a false understanding of the dynamics involved. It is an impossibility and a hopeless goal for lawmakers.

I must warn readers about the rise of a professional class of digital policy experts who promote the notion that they can come up with laws upholding privacy and other cherished values that anticipate the manipulations of future digital architectures. As a technologist I don’t find the claims of these types of experts to be credible. Nonetheless they seem to have influence in EU circles. I am amazed that this is so.

Furthermore, the politics of regulating a company like Google is difficult because the population becomes addicted to the “free” services and will in many cases take the company’s side. This is similar to the way that many people always side with authoritarian regimes because they perceive a short term self-interest.

The gloomiest contribution to this debate is perhaps Shoshana Zuboff’s. In “Dark Google” she explains how we are witnessing the rise of a new absolute power, how Google is transferring its radical politics from cyberspace to reality. It will earn its money by knowing, manipulating, controlling reality. Reality is the new product:

If there is a single word to describe Google, it is “absolute.” The Britannica defines absolutism as a system in which “the ruling power is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency.” In ordinary affairs, absolutism is a moral attitude in which values and principles are regarded as unchallengeable and universal. There is no relativism, context-dependence, or openness to change.

Six years ago I asked Eric Schmidt what corporate innovations Google was putting in place to ensure that its interests were aligned with its end users. (…) Schmidt’s answer was the quintessence of absolutism: “trust me; I know best.” At that moment I knew I was in the presence of something new and dangerous whose effects reached beyond narrow economic contests and into the heart of everyday life.

In 2010, Google established a partnership with the NSA that added to the complexity and opacity of operations (…) The U.S. Justice Department kept the partnership secret,  but news reports, court documents, and eventually the Snowden leaks reveals a picture of interdependence and  collaboration. As former  director of the NSA Mike McConnell put it, “Recent reports of possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts — and shared challenges — that we are likely to see in the future…”

Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. (…) This turns ordinary life into the daily renewal of a 21st century Faustian pact. (…) In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect.  Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy.  Privacy rights confer decision rights.  Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation.  Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.

What is Google up to next?  We know it’s secret, but here is how it looks to me. Google is no longer content with the data business. It’s next step is to build an even more radical “reality business.” (…) In the reality business, the payoff is in shaping and communicating real life behaviors of people and things in millions of ways that drive revenue to Google. The business model is expanding to encompass the digital you as well as the actual you (…) Unsurprisingly, the two entities at the vanguard of this new wave are Google and the NSA.

Eric Schmidt and Mathias Döpfners controversy in the F.A.Z.  is only the beginning of a disruption that will shake industry, society and citizens.

To summarize:

Maybe you should fear Google too. Do you? I do.


(*) In December 2011 the publishing group Axel Springer bought a majority share of Visual Meta.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.