Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why some fear Google -- and others should, too

Excerpts from a 4,000 word letter by the CEO of a leading German publisher to the company that once promised “don’t be evil”:

An open letter to Eric Schmidt
Why we fear Google
17.04.2014, von MATHIAS DÖPFNER
Frankfurter Allgemeine
Dear Eric Schmidt,

In your text “Die Chancen des Wachstums” (English Version: “A Chance for Growth”) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, you reply to an article which this newspaper had published a few days earlier under the title “Angst for Google” (“Fear of Google”). You repeatedly mention the Axel Springer publishing house. In the spirit of transparency I would like to reply with an open letter to highlight a couple of things from our point of view.

Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google
Google’s employees are always extremely friendly to us and to other publishing houses, but we are not communicating with each other on equal terms. How could we? Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google. And we are also worlds apart economically. At fourteen billion dollars, Google’s annual profit is about twenty times that of Axel Springer. The one generates more profit per quarter than the revenues of the other in a whole year. Our business relationship is that of the Goliath of Google to the David of Axel Springer. When Google changed an algorithm, one of our subsidiaries lost 70 percent of its traffic within a few days. The fact that this subsidiary is a competitor of Google’s is certainly a coincidence.

Not only economic, but also political

We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You wrote it yourself in your book: “We believe that modern technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize (...), and what gives them power is their ability to grow – specifically, their speed to scale. Almost nothing, short of a biological virus, can scale as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms and this makes the people who build, control, and use them powerful too.”

The discussion about Google’s power is therefore not a conspiracy theory propagated by old-school diehards. You yourself speak of the new power of the creators, owners, and users. In the long term I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition, not only economic, but also political. It concerns our values, our understanding of the nature of humanity, our worldwide social order and, from our own perspective, the future of Europe.

The greatest opportunity in the last few decades

As the situation stands, your company will play a leading role in the various areas of our professional and private lives – in the house, in the car, in healthcare, in robotronics. This is a huge opportunity and a no less serious threat. I am afraid that it is simply not enough to state, as you do, that you want to make the world a “better place.”

You say in your article that those who criticize Google are “ultimately criticizing the Internet as such and the opportunity for everyone to be able to access information from wherever they happen to be.” The opposite is true. Those who criticize Google are not criticizing the Internet. Those who are interested in having an intact Internet – these are the ones who need to criticize Google.

Google is to the Internet what the Deutsche Post was to mail delivery or Deutsche Telekom to telephone calls. In those days there were national state monopolies. Today there is a global network monopoly. This is why it is of paramount importance that there be transparent and fair criteria for Google’s search results.

However, these fair criteria are not in place. Google lists its own products, from e-commerce to pages from its own Google+ network, higher than those of its competitors, even if these are sometimes of less value for consumers and should not be displayed in accordance with the Google algorithm. It is not even clearly pointed out to the user that these search results are the result of self-advertising. Even when a Google service has fewer visitors than that of a competitor, it appears higher up the page until it eventually also receives more visitors. This is called the abuse of a market-dominating position. And everyone expected the European antitrust authorities to prohibit this practice. It does not look like it will.

Is it really smart to wait?
Historically, monopolies have never survived in the long term. Either they have failed as a result of their complacency, which breeds its own success, or they have been weakened by competition – both unlikely scenarios in Google’s case. Or they have been restricted by political initiatives. IBM and Microsoft are the most recent examples.

Another way would be voluntary self-restraint on the part of the winner. Is it really smart to wait until the first serious politician demands the breakup of Google? Or even worse – until the people refuse to follow? While they still can? We most definitely no longer can.

Sincerely Yours
Mathias Döpfner
Via John Paczkowski at re/code

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