Why Google’s dominance doesn’t bother me that much

A few weeks ago, I gave a guest lecture in a class on intellectual property and information law (SI 519) at Michigan’s School of Information, a class in which I was a student just a few years ago. The Google Book Search settlement had just been announced, so my original plans for talking about the various ways copyright is an issue for libraries got derailed and we spent much of the class talking about Google. I got kind of impassioned about how much good I think will come out of Google’s library partnerships. I also gave the students a bit of my personal history as it relates to the Google project and my attitude towards it: I used to work at a literary agency, and when I first heard about the project I thought it sounded like massive copyright infringement. I couldn’t get over my concern for the beloved authors whose interests I was in the habit of looking out for. A few weeks in SI 519 and my mind was changed forever.

A couple days after my guest lecture, I heard from a student in the class who was troubled by Google’s power, particularly in the area of secrecy, and she asked me to explain to her what made me feel so comfortable with such a powerful corporate monopoly. She wanted me to change her mind like my mind had been changed. I haven’t asked her for permission to reprint her email so I won’t, but I put a lot of time and energy into my response, and I realized it might be worth sharing here. Most people I know have mixed feelings about Google, and this email basically outlines my current thinking on the topic.

Here’s my reply, slightly edited for clarity:

Hi [Student],

If you feel that the problem with Google is 1) secrecy and 2) potential monopoly, then I don’t think I’ll be able to make an argument that would change your mind.

When the Google Library Project was first announced, the major focus in the press, and for me, was on copyright law. The project seemed to me like massive and systematic copyright infringement, and so I was opposed to it. After a few weeks in Jack Bernard’s SI 519, I became convinced that it wasn’t copyright infringement, that it was a fair use, and that it also had the potential to contribute enormously to the public good, which is one of the foundational goals of copyright law. That’s the issue on which my mind was changed.

Is Google huge and powerful? Yes. Is Google extraordinarily secretive? Yes. Does Google’s business model have large and potentially negative implications for privacy? Yes. But these things just don’t bother me as much as they bother a lot of people. While I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, I think what it comes down to for me is that Google got to where it is by being better than everyone else and by innovating more. When Google started out in the search business there was plenty of competition, but Google’s product was head and shoulders above everything else in the field and so Google dominated. It didn’t employ anti-competitive practices like Microsoft, and it didn’t weasel its way to the top with government favoritism like Enron or Halliburton. It was just better. And I’m very uncomfortable with punishing a company for being better and more innovative than its competitors.

If an individual is uncomfortable with Google’s capabilities, then that person can choose not to use Google products. Google may end up with a monopoly on digitized out-of-print in-copyright book content, but there are still options for just about everything else one could want to do on the web, including email, search, maps, blogs, news, and shopping.

So as I said, I doubt we’ll be able to change each others’ minds. I’ve encountered many people who feel the way you do about Google, and we’ve never convinced each other of anything. I love Google because its products make my life better, and they’re all free. Furthermore, I believe that Google’s investment in development and innovation has produced a net benefit for society. I understand that Google’s power means it might have the capacity to do bad things, but that’s not the same as doing bad things.

That’s what I think. What do you think?