I may not be a Google fan boy (start with this post if you’re new here), but the recent column in the Guardian (which, by the way, is one of my favorite Endeca customers) entitled “Google is just an amoral menace” is over the top. In fairness to the Guardian, the column is an opinion piece written by Henry Porter of The Observer, and is hardly representative of the fare I expect from the United Kingdom’s leading liberal voice.
What does Porter tell us? Before he vilifies Google, he goes after Scribd, a popular document sharing website. I’m partial to SlideShare myself, but Scribd is significantly more popular. Porter excoriates Scribd for not doing enough to combat unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted materials:
The point is that even if Scribd removes books, it still allows individuals to advertise services for delivering pirated books by email, which must make it the enemy of every writer and publisher in the world. In effect it has turned copyright law on its head: instead of asking publishers for permission, it requires them to object if and when they become aware of a breach.
I understand how publishers resent file-sharing sites that facilitate digital piracy. Clearly Porter doesn’t feel that laws like the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty (implemented in the United States as the DMCA) go far enough–he objects to the “safe harbor” provisions that indemnify an ISP, as long as the ISP responds promptly to infringement allegations. He would like ISPs to be responsible for not publishing unauthorized reproduction, and not just for removing them when publishers complain. He’d probably get along well with the Italian prosecutors who want to throw some Google executives in jail because of a YouTube video.
Indeed, I generally prefer opt-in provisions to opt-out–for example, I’m among the skeptics of Google’s book search settlement. And no, I’m not a Microsoft fan boy either!
But there’s a difference between being a publisher and being an ISP. The safe harbor provision for ISPs is there because ISPs are supposed to be common carriers that provide service to the general public without discrimination. Telephone companies are not liable for slander; snail mail and email providers are not liable for illegal activity conducted through the offline or online post; etc.
Yes, there is contributory copyright infringement. But contributory infringement means that the service provider actually knew or should have known of the infringing activity. It is a doctrine of reactive, not proactive, enforcement.
The point of the safe harbor provision is to ensure that there will be common carriers. Remove it, and there would be a chilling effect on ISPs. You might as well shut down the internet. The only middle ground I can espose is to eliminate anonymity–but that would have a chilling effect where it matters most, on dissidents in repressive regimes. I do think we overuse and abuse online anonymity, but it has its place.
Back to Porter and Google. He tells us:
Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.
Huh? Google walked away from commercial terms it found unfavorable, and that makes Google a bully? I actually grant that Google exercises monopolistic power in some arenas, such as the book search settlement, or in its negotiation with advertisers, but in this case the performers are just whining that Google won’t buy at the price they demand. Unless I’m missing some critical part of the story, it’s the artists who should be mocked for their sense of entitlement. I know that Billy Bragg is a left-wing activist, and perhaps he sees Google as some sort of fascist overlord. But Google surely does not have a monopoly on the distribution of music or music videos, and it’s absurd for artists to feel entitled that Google distribute their wares any pay them a price that the market is unlikely to bear. Unless the idea is to fix the price of music for the general public–in which case, who is being the fascist?
Porter does make some points that I agree with. His characterization that Google is “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” is a caricature, but not entirely off base. What he’s missing, of course, is that this “creating nothing” is a significant technical feat. But I agree that Google’s relationship to content creators is often parasitic.
And his point about newspaper industry is spot-on:
One of the chief casualties of the web revolution is the newspaper business, which now finds itself laden with debt (not Google’s fault) and having to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive. Newspapers can of course remove their content but then their own advertising revenues and profiles decline. In effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Were newspapers to combine to take on Google they would be almost certainly in breach of competition law.
Of course, I blame the newspapers a bit more for getting themselves into this mess–they didn’t have to give their content away for free. But now that they have, they’re trapped in a catch 22: sustaining the relationship devalues their content, while ending the relationship only works if the industry acts in concert.
In summary, Google has its faults, and it’s important to hold those faults up to the light. But Google is not an “amoral menace”, and attacks like these only reinforce the perception that Google critics are intransigent Luddites. Criticism is most effective when it is informed and even-handed.
Note: Ian Betteridge offers more measured (and briefer) analysis at Technovia in “Some quick thoughts about Google versus the newspapers“.