Whenever a person talks to the press, there is always a risk that sometimes words will get misconstrued or taken out of context. Mostly, this isn’t done maliciously – well, it isn’t unless you speak to one of the many skulduggerous media outlets out there. Any perceived misrepresentation happens due to restrictions of the medium itself: words must be truncated, summarized, etc. It happens.
When Sergey Brin told The Guardian that companies like Apple and Facebook were growing threats to the internet and invention, you have to imagine that he expected some kind of backlash when he read his words in the published article. The backlash happened right on cue – in fact, it probably would have been a journalistic deficiency had some kind of frustrated response not resulted from Brin’s comments since many see his company, Google, as being equally guilty of the very things he accused Facebook and Apple of doing.
The next step in this media waltz, of course, is for Brin to publicly explain his comments and defend himself against the backlash, which he has done today. Over on his Google+ account, Brin posted a defense in which he says that, while the Guardian piece was “a pretty good read,” it was “a short summary of a long discussion” and “[his] thoughts got particularly distorted in the secondary coverage.”
I believe the internet has been one of the greatest forces for good in the world over the past quarter century. So when the Guardian requested that I speak to them over the past few months about internet freedom, I decided it was important to participate.
Today, the primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent. This has been far more effective than I ever imagined possible across a number of nations. In addition, other countries such as the US have come close to adopting very similar techniques in order to combat piracy and other vices. I believe these efforts have been misguided and dangerous.
Lastly in the interview came the subject of digital ecosystems that are not as open as the web itself and I think this portion has led to some misunderstanding of my views. So to clarify, I certainly do not think this issue is on a par with government based censorship. Moreover, I have much admiration for two of the companies we discussed — Apple and Facebook. I have always admired Apple’s products. In fact, I am writing this post on an Imac and using an Apple keyboard I have cherished for the past seven years. Likewise, Facebook has helped to connect hundreds of millions of people, has been a key tool for political expression and has been instrumental to the Arab Spring. Both have made key contributions to the free flow of information around the world.
So what was my concern and what about Google for that matter?
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. Ebay quickly became the largest auction company in the world without having to pay a portion of revenue to any ISP. Paypal became the most successful payment company and Amazon soared in e-commerce also without such tolls or any particular company’s permission.
Today, starting such a service would entail navigating a number of new tollbooths and gatekeepers. If you are interested in this issue I recommend you read http://futureoftheinternet.org/ by +Jonathan Zittrain. While openness is a core value at Google, there are a number of areas where we can improve too (as the book outlines).
But regardless of how you feel about digital ecosystems or about Google, please do not take the free and open internet for granted from government intervention. To the extent that free flow of information threatens the powerful, those in power will seek to suppress it.
In the original Guardian article that set this whole thing off, Brin appeared to criticize Facebook for hoarding all of its users’ information and not allowing them to switch to other services more easily. Brin said, “Facebook has been sucking down Gmail contacts for many years,” referring to the feature where you can import your Gmail contacts to see which of your email buddies are on Facebook. Facebook, as it were, does not provide a similar feature.
It’s an interesting quandary because Google needs an open internet in order to continue to succeed. It’s how the company’s become as valuable as it has and that formula is integral for it to compete against Facebook on the internet. Facebook knows this, which is why, even though it may hoard as much information from users as it can, it’s not going to share it with anyone because giving out that information might as well be like Mark Zuckerberg just giving away Facebook’s millions of dollars. In essence, the two companies have respectively embraced different models of success that end up directly opposing each other. Google appears to have realized this too late and, in a way, got taken to the cleaners by Facebook.
Do you think Brin clarified his comments adequately? Did he fail to distinguish the practices of Google from the “walled gardens” of Facebook and Apple? Let us know what you think.