Did you really think Google was on your side?

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt talks about Android at the AllThingsD mobile conference.
Maggie Reardon/CNET

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) The power and the promise of the Internet lies in its ability to give individuals the capacity to reach, communicate and collaborate with millions of people, to start companies from your kitchen table and launch movements from your desk.

That liberationist rhetoric -- power to the little guy -- has been at the heart of Silicon Valley for several generations. In his lectures at Cambridge University earlier this year, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt called this the "diffusion of power," and his argument was that disruptive technology would unseat existing power structures and redistribute it among us all.

Schmidt seemed startled when his audience didn't entirely buy his dream of freedom. Of course communication was empowering, but at the same time the Internet had done what all new industries do: concentrate power into a few dominant companies, including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. While their libertarian rhetoric continued unalloyed, the reality of their businesses had changed. They might sell to individuals, but they themselves had become hugely powerful by aggregating users in order to sell access to them to their real customers -- advertisers.

In this new landscape, individuals in fact had very few rights and very little power.

What's intriguing is that the companies themselves appear to have been fooled by their own rhetoric. Identifying with the outsider, the underdog, the individual, the companies seemed to imagine that they represented a kind of digitally empowered counterculture. When Eric Schmidt recently went to North Korea, he did so against the wishes of his government. When Mark Zuckerberg took Facebook public last year, he did so with a share structure that demonstrated he didn't care about his shareholders. Both positions imply that these billionaire executives side with the individuals whom their businesses are liberating.

That this is all fake now appears blindingly obvious. In their careful, legally precise expressions of outrage that followed revelations of their role in widespread government surveillance, these excecutives fool no one. Their companies are in the business of selling users to advertisers, and we should not be surprised that they necessarily cooperate when asked to serve up access to those same users data to national governments. Providing data is the business they are in. Privacy and individual freedoms was never their core concern. They never were rebels; they always were business people for whom the rhetoric of rebellion was mere marketing.

When Zuckerberg calls for transparency, we should all be very clear that what he wants is transparency for Facebook, not for its users. When Schmidt talks about the power of individuals, we all need to remember that his company is in the business of aggregating that power and selling it. Who ever imagined otherwise?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.