April 21, 2004
Gmail and the "Emergent" Power of the Internet Oligarchy
Another one bites the dust. Say good bye to Tim O'Reilly as a thinker, and say hello to another defender of the status quo.
First lets step back, there is a big picture here, we need to see it first. Back a decade or so ago, the internet was exploding, it wasn't quite new, but it was new to most people. It represented a break from the norms of society, a new way of communication, a new form of organization. It represented a potential for change, change for the better.
Riding this wave of change were a set of thinkers, people who understood the changes at work, and could express them in ways that people could understand. They became the voice of potential, leaders of possibility. One of them was Tim O'Reilly, publisher of the best computer books around.
Cut back to now. Things have changed, the internet is big now. The internet is big business now. Big dollars, big power. The big revolution in economics was a bust, the big revolution in communication is now just another aspect of the day to day. And what once seemed like a wide open space of possibility is now increasingly the domain of an oligarchy. AOL, Google, Yahoo, Ebay, Amazon, Microsoft and few other large corporations control vast portions of the internet, a jostle with each other for even more control.
Flash back a decade ago again. The difference between corporation and user was miniscule then. Yahoo was a site made by users to help other users. A few years later Google rose up by making a search engine the way users wanted it, not the way the first wave internet corporations envisioned it. The people starting companies where the people using the space. When leaders like Tim O'Reilly spoke out, they represented the interests of both the users of the space, and the truly innovative companies starting out in it.
Slice back to today and its a different story. The internet has undergone a phase change. The difference between the companies and the users is no longer fluid, it is striated. Being a user with a good idea is no longer enough to start a company or get a job at Google. Companies no longer hire anyone who seems intelligent, you now must have the skill set to cross the threshold into employment with a big internet firm. The big companies, the oligarchs, are now in a position of power.
Tim O'Reilly runs his own little fiefdom as the best publisher of computer books around. He has wealth and power to defend, a reason to justify the status quo. And his recent essay on Google's new Gmail service makes this all too clear.
Gmail is an email service just launched by Google. Google is offering a "free" email service in exchange for the right to serve targeted text ads in each email message. A trade off that set off alarm bells with privacy activists everywhere. In order to serve targeted ads Google's computers need to scan everyone of the users' personal email messages. As danah boyd as puts it, it just feels icky.
In an essay titled The Fuss About Gmail and Privacy: Nine Reasons Why It's Bogus Tim O'Reilly attacks those troubled by Gmail, and does it in a way that shows where his priorities now lie.
While O'Reilly claims to have 9 reasons to rebute Gmails critics, he really only has three. Two are tactics beloved by those in power for centuries. The first is the "don't rock the boat, aka its always been this way". The second is "trust us, we are smarter then you". Both are equally noxious. The third tactic is newer, a product of the corporate market era, we'll call it the "no one is forcing you, you just won't have much choice".
So yeah its true that what Gmail is doing is not really anymore intrusive then what other internet email companies are doing when they filter spam. Its just that Google, with their legendary lack of subtle social skills, has made an already existing problem far more visible and apparent to the end user. In a way we should be thankful for them for bring issues to forefront. Most internet users have no clue just how much information they are depositing into databases of Google, Amazon, Yahoo and the other big internet players. And somewhere down the line people are going to wake up in shock, with the realization of just how much these corporations know about them and their personal habits. Just because a problem has been ignored doesn't mean its not a problem...
Enter the second line of defense, "trust Google, they are smart". Never mind that the early reports indicate that their spam filters are crap. Google indeed was quite innovative when they revolutionized the world of search engines at the get go. They also where a couple of PhD students plus a handful of employees. Now they are a multibillion dollar business about to go public. Innovation comes a bit differently in environments like that. Google's second big innovation came in the area of ads. Notice a shift in priorities? They've gone from innovative ways to help users, to innovative ways to help advertisers. So when they innovate are they going to innovate in a way to make your email better for you? or for their business?
The final argument O'Reilly makes is perhaps the most insidious, the "no one is forcing you" defense. This one really merits a whole essay, as its lodged deep into the mythos of the "free" market. The fact is that no market is ever "free". And while no one forces you do ever buy a product, firms have tremendous power over the shape and form of the markets they operate in. Google is an internet powerhouse and by entering the email market it will shape that market. If Gmail succeeds it will transform the dynamics of online email in a big way. And they are pushing the market towards a space of targeted ads and deep datamining. Is this a good thing? Well we don't quite know yet, but I'm watching this space with the utmost of caution.Posted by Abe at April 21, 2004 01:38 PM