Google: the benevolent dictator of information

Google comes under a lot of fire these days for “controlling” too much of the information of the internet.  A lot of this criticism comes from the dying old-media types that’d rather blame someone else than innovate, and a lot of this criticism is (rightly) deflected.  Google doesn’t own any data; even with Google Books, Google doesn’t own the rights to any (most?) of the books that they scan: they release them into the public domain.  Anyone else is free to take these public domain books and build an alternate system around them.  Anyone else is free to make other partnerships with content sources to get the non-public-domain books as well.

But I still think that in a very real sense, Google controls the access to this data.  Particularly for Google News; there they certainly don’t own any of the data.  But Google, through Google News, sets policies for what articles will have good search rankings.  And I’m sure that articles with good search rankings do dramatically better, thus making Google News search ranking a measure of how “good” an article is, that forms a set of de-factor standards for content sources to follow.  Similarly with the main web search; Google rank is a highly valuable resource, around which an entire subindustry has spawned.  By controlling the ranking algorithm, Google controls what pages show in search results.  And thus what pages people go to when they search.  So in a very real way, Google decides what pages are good for people to go to.

And that’s scary, because it means that Google is going to send us to whatever information sources it wants us to go to, which are only the sources we want to go to if they are coincidentally the same.  Luckily, so far they are the same, due to what Google’s incentives are.  Since Google gets the vast majority of its money from advertising (high high 90%s), Google’s incentive is to get us to see more of their ads.  And since they have enough of the ad market, they can’t rely on taking more of it to get more ads out there; they have to grow the market itself.  So Google’s incentive is to get people to spend more time on the web, and their method of doing that is to provide people with methods of getting what they want on the web.

So this is why I see Google as a benevolent dictator.  They are a company that controls a vast amount of power when it comes to information access, but for now all they want to do is give us what we want.  But we shouldn’t forget that Google is just a company that’s going to do what it wants, so if ever Google wants to do something that doesn’t align with our interests, we might find it becomes more of a microsoft.  But until then, Google is a great company.

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