Google: Threat or Menace?
The ever popular “Google: Threat or Menace?” debate went up a few decibels after comments last week from two very diverse sources, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and a group of U.K. musicians that included Billy Bragg and Robin Gibb, and then momentarily reached a screech at a frequency well beyond human hearing with a Sunday opinion piece by the Observer’s Henry Porter. The common theme was that Google, having become extremely successful at meeting the essential need of finding things on the Web and and extremely rich attaching advertising to its search results, now has the responsibility to support the business models of the disrupted industries whose content it indexes.
In the course of contending that newspapers need to stuff the toothpaste back into the tube and start putting their content behind subscription walls (“People reading news for free on the Web, that’s got to change.”), Murdoch recommended a policy of non-cooperation with the search sovereign: “The question is, should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyright … not steal, but take. Not just them but Yahoo. If you have a brand like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, you don’t have to. You can say thanks but no thanks.” Murdoch’s Journal is, of course, one of the few newspapers with the clout and the audience demographics to charge a subscription online, but then again, it lets you read full versions of its stories for free if you click through from Google News, so it must find some value in traffic brought in by search, even if that undercuts the boss man’s argument.
The musicians, too, seem to expect Google to subsidize their industry’s status quo because not to do so is “unfair.” They’re angry because Google has chosen to take music videos down from YouTube in the U.K. rather than pay a new royalty fee for each viewing. Accusing Google of “using its monopoly in the marketplace to dictate terms” and saying it “ascribes little value to music,” the musicians contended, “Royalties are a vital income source for all professional creators and must be preserved to ensure a continued vibrant music industry. We trust that Google will reinstate music on YouTube and pay a fair price for it.” No mention was made of the marketing value of exposure through YouTube, which one might think would enter into a “fairness” equation — if, that is, Google had any reason to defend its decision on those grounds. In reality, it’s a business making a business decision, namely, according to a spokesman, that YouTube “cannot be expected to engage in a business in which it loses money every time a music video is played.”
And the Observer’s Porter … well, let’s let the diatribe, which cites both the newspaper conundrum and the music video kerfuffle, speak for itself. Google, he says, is an “amoral menace,” a “classic monopoly that destroys industries and individual enterprise in its bid for ever greater profits” and 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.” He goes on: “One detects in Google something that is delinquent and sociopathic, perhaps the character of a nightmarish 11-year-old. This particular 11-year-old has known nothing but success and does not understand the risks, skill and failure involved in the creation of original content, nor the delicate relationships that exist outside its own desires and experience. There is a brattish, clever amorality about Google that allows it to censor the pages on its Chinese service without the slightest self doubt, store vast quantities of unnecessary information about every Google search, and menace the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny. … This brat needs to be stopped in its tracks and taught about the responsibilities it owes to content providers and copyright holders.” Berin Szoka of the Technology Liberation Front takes issue with the “creates nothing” contention, and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington saysall the whining in the world won’t turn back the clock: “What Porter and Bragg want is a subsidy from Google. A sort of welfare tax on a profitable company so that they can continue to draw the paychecks they’ve become accustomed to. That isn’t going to happen, and all this hand wringing isn’t helping to move their respective industries toward a successful business model. They either need to adapt or die. And they’re choosing a very noisy and annoying death.”