Watch CBSN Live

The Google Manifesto: Dr. Open and Mr. Closed

I've waited to join the apparent bandwagon commenting on the Google (GOOG) blog post called The meaning of open if, for no other reason, than to put some time into reading and considering the argument. And now that I have, I've come to the conclusion that Google is deceptive -- likely unconsciously, but deceptive nevertheless. Because once you go through document, work through the contradictory statements, and compare what they say to what they do, you can see the huge essential conflict lying at the base of its business. On one hand, Google emphasizes high sounding sentiments. On the other hand, existence for Google means control -- more subtle than an Apple or Microsoft, but control nonetheless.

This internally clashing duality can be seen even in Google's definition of open:

There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information. These are the things we should be doing. In many cases we aren't there, but I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration.
The problem with any manifesto, and the thinking that inspires it, is that you're dealing with a seemingly logical framework that is actually all about eliciting an emotional response, not generating reasoned thought. When you define open technology as a combination of open source and open standards, and you use the standards and release much, but most assuredly not all, you generate the illusion of being open. In direct marketing, it's called verisimilitude: arranging information skillfully to create in the mind of the reader acceptance and an impression that you are being logical, when you are actually creating a highly emotional pitch. Google says that in an open system, " a competitive advantage doesn't derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products." However, this comes just a few paragraphs later:
While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source. Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users. The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to "game" our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone.
But about 97 percent of Google's revenue comes from advertising. So, in essence, it doesn't matter how much bloody code Google releases, because it's the 97:3 rule. They keep what drives 97 percent of the business and give away bulk code that is responsible for 3 percent. Keeping the Internet open means just that -- leveling playing fields. Only suddenly that possibility could "actually hurt users." Yes, some users could game the algorithms, but some already do that. And many more would learn what it takes to legitimately get noticed by the search engine with the largest market share. It's impossible to have a system open when it's so closed that people have to guess how it really works.

However, fully open would mean fully uncontrolled, literally depending on quick movement and constant innovation. When things are uncontrolled, it's far harder to make money, and as Google's financials show, real business innovation is not the company's forte. If it were, you'd likely see a more diversified set of revenue streams.

The same reasoning applies to the concept of open information. Even here there are mountains of deception that, I think, are more unconscious than anything. For example, Google claims that its use of consumer data is transparent and points to its privacy policy, "which is written for humans and not just lawyers." (For amusement, I ran that policy through a couple of readability index calculators, including Harry McLaughlin's SMOG index. It comes out at a post-graduate level equivalent to the Harvard Business Review.)

Google is anything but open about information. Not only do people likely not realize how much information is being collected on them (How many people actually read privacy statements?), but the data the company collects on users and their habits is not largely freely available because it is a potentially valuable commodity in behavioral marketing. The more you know about people, the more accurately you can market and the more you can charge advertisers who want to use you to market. So the database of information is a proprietary product for Google. Furthermore, Google makes its money by running ads against pointers to content that it doesn't own and largely doesn't pay for. That is the "open for thee, not for me" philosophy again.

In short, everything at Google is open, except for the most important things, and there it is as tight-fisted as any big corporation. But the self-proclaimed interest in "open" turns the search giant into a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this case, it wants everything to be open and so is willing to do whatever it deems necessary, like ignoring copyright, to gather the information it wants. However, it then takes what was open and closes it for the Good of the Internet. And for the Good of Management and Shareholders. However, if all information is free, someone must subsidize the gathering and creation. Looking at the question of whether volunteer editors are leaving Wikipedia more quickly than they come to the project, one has to wonder for how long people are willing to subsidize a system with their own time and efforts. When the system is actually making money for a small group, might they leave a touch faster?

Image courtesy of Long Tail Libations, Inc.

View CBS News In