For a company whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” Google has an unfortunate capacity to look past the most obvious things.
Take, for instance, its stance in favor of “net neutrality.” Insofar as this concept is more than a slogan it’s a bad idea, and especially so as a matter of policy. Legislation like the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, for example, invites real government regulation of the Internet as a solution to an imaginary problem.
As seen in the title of the congressional legislation, the language of net neutrality proponents, always over the top, has lately taken on a kind of goofy grandeur, with some — like Save the Internet, a coalition coordinated by Free Press — trafficking in such pap as “Net neutrality, the First Amendment of the Internet.” (Of course it is.)
But what’s the attraction in all of this for Google?
The critics’ answer is that Google wants to ensure, whatever the cost to the future development and independence of the Internet, its own dominant, and free riding, position.
Google’s approach to the problem of copyright infringement also calls into question the company’s high-mindedness.
As charged in the case of Viacom v. YouTube, Google is accused of flagrant violation of copyrighted material on the website of its YouTube subsidiary. Google’s defense is that it takes down offending posts after being notified, and that this is sufficient under the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA.
But in its complaint Viacom makes a compelling case that the takedown process is an endless loop of notifications and re-postings, and that, in fact, copyright infringement is at the heart of YouTube’s business plan.
A number of observers have suggested that Viacom’s lawsuit is just an attempt to win a favorable licensing agreement, and that in the end the parties will work out some satisfactory arrangement between themselves.
Perhaps, but copyright infringement is not a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against copyright holders, and if a negotiated settlement is the result, so be it. This said, much might be usefully clarified if the dispute goes all the way through trial.
In any case, the point is that, as with net neutrality, Google’s posture regarding copyright infringement seems to be driven more by its own interests than by any sense of a community of interests.
By the standards of those of us at The Media Institute, which is primarily a First Amendment organization, Google’s lack of any meaningful concern or action regarding freedom of speech and of the press is the most troubling aspect of the company.
We would not have this concern if Google were just a small affair, or if the legacy media were fat and sassy. But neither is the case. Google is a giant while newspapers, for instance, are in a fight for their very survival.
Just to establish a frame of reference, as this post is being written (midday, July 10), here are the market capitalizations of some leading media companies: Time Warner, $50B; Disney, $56B; Washington Post, $6B; Gannett, $4B; New York Times, $2B; and McClatchy, $427M. And Google’s market cap? It is just in excess of $172B!
In other words, the market values Google more than it values Time Warner, Disney, Washington Post, New York Times, Gannett, and McClatchy put together! In fact a lot more — 45 per cent more.
And the rub in this is that, as an historical matter, the most important players in promoting and defending the First Amendment have been Hollywood and newspapers. Yet these are two industries much beleaguered by the Internet, of which Google is the leader.
Against this background one might expect a company determined not to be evil to mount a major effort, if not in assistance to the old media, then in lending a hand in promotion of the First Amendment. Sorry to say, Google’s record in this regard is a blank slate.
It’s in the nature of the way the world works that one can “be evil” in more than one way. One can do it by acts of commission, and one can do it by acts of omission. Judging by the examples above, Google does it both ways.