Europe is wrong to take a sledgehammer to Big Google
It is the continent’s favourite hobby, and even the European Parliament cannot resist: having a pop at the world’s biggest search engine. In a recent and largely symbolic vote, representatives urged that Google search should be separated from its other services — demanding, in essence, that the company be broken up.
This would benefit Google’s detractors but not, alas, European citizens. Search, like the social networking sector dominated by Facebook, appears to be a natural monopoly. The more Google knows about each query — who is making it, where and why — the more relevant its results become. A company that has organised, say, 90 per cent of the world’s information would naturally do better than a company holding just one-tenth of that information.
But search is only a part of Google’s sprawling portfolio. Smart thermostats and self-driving cars are information businesses, too. Both draw on Google’s bottomless reservoirs of data, sensors such as those embedded in hardware, and algorithms. All feed off each other.
Policy makers do not yet grasp the dilemma. To unbundle search from other Google services is to detach them from the context that improves their accuracy and relevance. But to let Google operate as a natural monopoly is to allow it to invade other domains.
Facebook presents a similar dilemma. If you want to build a service around your online persona — be it finding new music or sharing power tools with neighbours — its identity gateway comes in handy. Mapping our interests and social connections, Facebook is the custodian of our reputations and consumption profiles. It makes our digital identity available to other businesses and, when we interact with those businesses, Facebook itself learns even more.
Given that data about our behaviour might hold the key to solving problems from health to climate change, who should aggregate them? And should they be treated as a commodity and traded at all?
Imagine if such data could accrue to the citizens who actually generate them, in a way that favoured its communal use. So a community could visualise its precise travel needs and organise flexible and efficient bus services — never travelling too empty or too full — to rival innovative transport start-up Uber. Taxis ordered through Uber (in which Google is an investor) can now play songs passengers have previously “liked” on music-streaming service Spotify (Facebook is an ally), an indication of what becomes possible once our digital identity lies at the heart of service provision. But to leave these data in the hands of the Google-
Facebook clan is to preclude others from finding better uses for it.
We need a data system that is radically decentralised and secure; no one should be able to obtain your data without permission, and no one but you should own it. Stripped of privacy-compromising identifiers, however, they should be pooled into a common resource. Any aspiring innovator or entrepreneur — not just Google and Facebook — should be able to gain access to that data pool to build their own app. This would bring an abundance of unanticipated features and services.
What Europe needs is not an Airbus to Google’s Boeing but thousands of nimble enterprises that operate on a level playing field with big American companies. This will not happen until we treat certain types of data as part of a common infrastructure, open to all. Imagine the outrage if a large company bought every copy of a particular book, leaving none for the libraries. Why would we accept such a deal with our data?
Basic searches — “Who wrote War and Peace?” — do not require Google’s sophistication and can be provided for free. Unable to hoard user data for advertising purposes, Google could still provide advanced search services, perhaps for a fee (not necessarily charged to citizens). The bill for finding books or articles related to the one you are reading could be picked up by universities, libraries or even your employer.
America will not abandon the current model of centralised, advertising-funded services; its surveillance state needs them. Russia and China have lessened their dependence on Google and Facebook, only to replace them with local equivalents.
Europe should know better. It has a modicum of respect for data protection. Its citizens are uneasy with the rapaciousness of Silicon Valley. But this is no reason to return to the not-so-distant past, when data were expensive and hard to aggregate. European politicians should take a longer term view. The problem with Google is not that it is too big but that it hoovers up data that does not belong to it.