Within the past two days the news came out that Google was shot down by Judge Chin for overstepping in the Google Books case, and that Google is forking over half a million dollars to detect Internet transparency issues.
On the topic of a Google books: I am not by any stretch of the imagination a copyright lawyer, so I’m not really qualified to be issuing opinions on this subject. I’m really looking forward to Kevin Smith’s blog post on this topic. However, I think that Judge Chin really blew this one. First of all an opt-in arrangement, as Google has pointed out, is completely untenable. As a result, a vast number of orphan works will be lost for to public use, which is a social tragedy of the highest order. Second, I will grant you that perhaps Google would gain essentially a monopoly over orphan works. However, who else but Google could do this? I don’t see Microsoft or Amazon stepping up to this particular plate. This is my objection to Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s Googlization of Everything arguments: yes, on the one hand he is right that it is a bit of a Faustian bargain. However, who else is going to do these things? It sure as hell isn’t going to be libraries or the library community generally. It should be, but it hasn’t been and it won’t be. It is, unfortunately, Google or nobody. I say this to my classes all the time, and I’m sure my students are tired of hearing it, but Google is fighting libraries’ fights for us, and has been for years.
On the subject of Internet transparency issues: Google is developing a set of tools that will be immensely useful in political crisis situations, such as existed in Egypt and exists in Libya, and according to the reports they are going to give it away for free. Let me emphasize these points: Google is creating a set of technology tools that are clearly useful in the service of social change. Also, Google is giving it away for free. Why are they doing this? Clearly, it is in Google’s business interest for there to be more, rather than fewer, users on the Internet. It really doesn’t matter why there are fewer — ISPs throttling users, governments cutting off ISPs, etc. It’s in Google’s business interest to prevent or limit this. Still, that business interest has the happy side effect of enabling the creation of tools that can be used for social change.
Which brings me to the title of this post. Can I become a citizen of Google, please? I haven’t seen a single government on the planet do as much to promote the public good in the online arena as Google has done within the past several years. I’ve been following the reporting and tweeting about Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. with great interest. And I’m coming to the conclusion that what is good for the Internet is good for society. Increasing channels of communication is good for society, and the Internet allows for an increase in the number of channels of communication. That’s overly simplistic, admittedly, but that’s what it boils down to. Enter Google. It is in Google’s business interest to enable use of the Internet, and to foster the existence of online channels of communication. The fact that this is a profit-making endeavor for Google does not, I think, change the fact that by pursuing their business interests they are also incidentally providing tools for the benefit of society… whether those tools are to detect Internet throttling, or to provide large corpuses of texts accessible to every one of the several billion internet users on Earth. Let me be more clear. I am coming to believe that by pursuing their business interests Google is making the world a better place. And I can’t believe I’m hearing myself say this: I sound like a Conservative. I’m the last person who would claim, uniformly, that business can run the world better than government. But in this case I’ll make an exception. Somebody tell me I’m wrong. Do I wish that some public or nonprofit organization were doing these things? Yes. But I don’t see anyone stepping up to these particular plates in such a systematic way. If not Google, who? If Google decided to run their own country, I would very likely want to move there.