Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) / Siva Vaidhyanathan -- Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia prefaces his book The Googlization of Everything with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville that perfectly captures his darker attitudes toward Google: "It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from coming into being; it does not tyrannize, it hinders." Vaidhyanathan is particularly concerned that Google's explosive success is placing too much power over (or perhaps responsibility for) the world's treasure-store of knowledge in the hands of one private company. His concerns are not without merit.

Vaidhyanathan is quick to admit that Google's success is based on the clear benefits that it has given the world. More than any other search engine, Google has "organized and made universally accessible the world's knowledge" and it has done so in a manner that has been comfortable and appealing to most internet users. It has also behaved more or less consistently with its informal motto: "Don't be evil." Having given Google its due, Vaidhyanathan describes practices that Google has adopted that raise important questions.

In general, Google's success depends on the "PageRank system" that they employ in displaying search results. Search results generally appear in descending order based on the number of pages that link to a page that is captured by Google's Web crawlers. This seemingly surrenders any editorial decision-making that Google might otherwise employ in displaying results and makes use of the decisions by a myriad anonymous Web designers to evaluate the merits of Web pages. There are, however, instances in which some filtering is employed by Google, most obviously is Google's willingness to consider blocking a site if they receive complaints about it.

More worrisome consequences of Google's practices stem from their standard practices. While the PageRank system will generally provide an effective quality screen, it also privileges mainstream sites. Popularity among Web designers will lead to a site appearing on Google's first page of results, which in turn will reinforce the popularity of the site. It is not easy for a new or unusual site to break onto the first page of results.

Vaidhyanathan also takes Google to task for their collaboration with the Chinese government in censoring search results. At first Google argued that providing censored information was better for democracy movements than providing no information at all; however, when Google's servers were hacked (presumably by the Chinese government) and information about Chinese dissidents and critics of the government were compromised, Google "pulled out of China." The pull out was less impressive than it appeared, though. Google simply offered its Mandarin-language search service through Hong Kong, and since all traffic between Hong Kong and China is censored by China, China continues to receive Google services, but they are censored by China and not Google directly.

Vaidyanathan also provides an very interesting exploration of the privacy issues that Google's practices raises. Two levels of concern can be identified here: first, Google is amassing a huge amount of information about individual internet users that conceivably could be used against the user. More broadly, though, Google's store of data about users could easily be used by whomever owns the information to understand the demographics of internet users in a manner that could be politically significant. It is already showing itself to be economically significant.

Perhaps Vaidyhanathan's most salient concern is Google's growing dominance in the digitization of our written (and graphic) cultural heritage and here he indicts our research libraries as complicit in a massive, historic act of privatization of a public good. The Google Books project has resulted in the digitization of nearly all of the out of copyright books at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford, and the New York Public Library. Disregarding copyright concerns, Google has also digitized massive numbers of "orphan" works, i.e., books that are not out of copyright, but for which the copyright holder is unknown. This turns normal publishing practices on their head: instead of requiring permission before publication, Google sought to publish until permission was denied by individual copyright holders. While it is true that a massive digitizing project of the sort that Google seeks to undertake would be impossible any other way, their actions are a direct challenge to long-settle copyright law. These actions resulted in a now-famous law suit, that has pitted publishers and authors against Google. The parties to the dispute have been trying to come to a legally acceptable out of court settlement, but have thus far been unable to do so.

Vaidhyanathan appears less concerned about the integrity of the traditional copyright regime than he is about what he calls "public failure," or the failure of public institutions to take responsibility of preserving and making freely accessible the world's cultural heritage and this is certainly the most significant concern that Google's activities have raised. While it is true that Google has not prevented others from creating competing digital archives, the head start that they have gained makes competition highly unlikely. This means that the access to the world's cultural heritage is likely to be -- at least for the foreseeable future -- in the hands of a single private company, unless, of course, public institutions take up the challenge of digitizing the resources for which they ostensibly are responsible and this is Vaidhyanathan's call to action. He proposes a "Human Knowledge Project" on the order of the Human Genome project, where governments around the world allocate the resources necessary to create a cultural digital repository that will ensure that our patrimony remains a public good accessible to all.

The Googlization of Everything is not always the most well organized book. Despite improvements from a pre-publication version, the book continues to read too much like a series of related blog postings; however, by the final chapter, the overall concerns do become clear and seem well argued, though one would be hard pressed to point to how and exactly where the argument was made.

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