Google Paranoia

I’ve been arguing for a while that Google is one of the good guys. It’s getting less and less easy to make that case. They’re supporting Chinese government censorship, they’re slurping up internet startups, and they’re acting more “microsofty” every day.

The most recent blow for corporate diversity is Google’s acquisition of Writely, an online word processor. Ben Vershbow comments on this at if:book:

In many cases, the networked book will live in an increasingly commercial context, tattooed and watermarked (like our clothing) with a dozen bubbly logos and scoured by a million mechanical eyes.

The mechanical eyes scouring the network have recently become an important concern to me. I was looking at the stats for Word Munger the other day and noticed that they really didn’t vary much from day to day. To see what was causing this, I switched to a stats package that compiles visits by bots separately, and found that nearly half my traffic consists of robots. Some of this, of course, is search engines, cataloging my work to make it easier for others to find, but increasingly, it’s spambots, looking for a weakness in my site to exploit. I may have to shut down the Moby Blook, incomplete as it is, because of spam.

Corporate solutions may be able to alleviate the problem: spam is a bigger problem for them than it is for us, so they can hire full-time programmers to defeat the spambots. But the temptation to allow some spambots in, for a fee, is great in such a scenario. Yahoo! and AOL have already succumbed to it. Can Google be far behind? Somehow it’s scarier to know that your work is being catalogued by a few select corporate allies, rather than any random Viagra salesman (and yet I almost edited “Viagra” out of that sentence, for fear of more spam).

I agree with Ben, I don’t really want my word processor encumbered by an array of context-sensitive ads. Although most of my writing is online, I do most of it using WordPress or Movable Type; then if I need to compile it later I use good ol’ Microsoft Word (and Clippy has been permanently assigned to electronic oblivion).

The danger in adopting Google for all your work: GMail for mail, Picasa for pictures, Blogger and Writely for writing, is that eventually Google can use their dominance in online productivity tools to force you to stay with them. If Writely documents aren’t compatible with the alternative, then you’re going to stay with Writely, even if Google’s ad regime becomes more oppressive. If Blogger doesn’t play well with other blogging systems, you’ll keep your blog there, even if Google forces you to accept comment spam “ads.” If Google makes these tools more interconnected (as they would be wise to do), the danger of Google’s market dominance becomes even greater.

The good news is, Google ain’t the only thing out there. Google may be the search engine king, but Myspace gets two and a half times more visitors each day. Not that Myspace is going to be anyone’s savior, but the web is a much more wide-open venue for competition than, say the desktop operating system. To me, a much more frightening concern is corporate control of the network itself. There are rumblings that the telephone and cable companies controlling the internet’s big pipes may soon start charging for bandwidth. If some high-bandwidth online resources are only available to those who pony up, then services like Google (and Myspace) may end up being the only ones able to afford to offer them. This combined cable/telephone/Google/Myspace monopoly really could destroy the free internet.

As we come to rely on the internet for more and more of day to day life, we may soon reach a point where figuring out how to replace it is more expensive than paying the monopolists whatever they ask. I don’t have a lot of answers on how to avoid this scenario. Maybe I should stick to writing about abortion.

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