Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google: "No pay? No play!"

So, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control” (source). It's a nice line, and one that sums up a lot of very profitable new tech businesses very nicely.

Reading this post by Gerry Morrissey* we see in News Corp a company that exercises monopolistic muscle and makes £100s of Millions in the UK out of it's ability to beat regulators - not beating competitors.

With Murdoch, it's easy to form judgements like this. Christ, the guy wears his Lex Luthor credentials so proudly on his sleeve where every European liberal can see them. We've spent the last six months screaming at anyone who will listen: "How did you not see this already you thick gits?"

But where Murdoch has adopted Machiavelli's injunction that 'it's better to be feared than loved', the big tech media players have gone the other route. By giving us shiny things that we like, they've been able to escape the grasp of regulators, because to regulate would be to deprive us all of the free-shiny that Apple and Google let us access.

So mp3 players as fantastically designed as the iPod are worth every penny of the £160 that it costs to buy. Why? Partly, because it allows us to listen to music in breach of the licence by which it was originally distributed - and it adds value to it with a cool user interface.

OK, those licences were daft, iniquitous and inflexible. Probably the optimal licencing regime for music would be some pay-per-listen, often funded through collecting companies and cushioned at the pay-point by bundling it into a complementary service (music in pubs shift beer - and hey presto! PRS!).

But two wrongs don't make a right. If I were a musician and you told me you were listening to my latest album on a file-shared mp3, I'd probably want to bite your head off and shit down your neck. And Apple have made $billions from the process that would have culminated in you having a turd poking out of your decapitated corpse.

My lovely shiny Humax box lets me time-shift and ad-skip. I love it. I've not watched an advert on TV for a long time. Thanks Humax! I just hope I don't run into a Channel 4 TV producer, screenwriter or director next time I spill that story or the same experience (head off, defecation etc) would be my just reward.

Humax have made $millions facilitating this process, crucifying the commercial Public Service Broadcasting model. As have TiVO and Sky+. Regulators with backbones would insist upon hardware and ISP levies to ofset this. But - hey! Hands off! Free-shiny!!

Google give us free tools. They're great! Or in the case of the one social media tool that I genuinely loved (Google Reader) it was great - until last week. I won't bore you with this one again, but I think that this issue raises profound questions about corporations that are given regulatory passes on the grounds that they're facilitating innovation.

Google, Apple Facebook give us nice things. There are huge social positives from what Google gives us for no noticeable charge. Like piracy or open data (the downsides of open data are under-discussed IMHO), these are game-changing processes. But because the innovation often results in positive game-changing and helps support important social strides, we give the corporations that make huge profits from them free-passes without treating them like the utilities that they often are.

And we don't acknowledge that these 'free' (at the point of use) services aren't actually free. They're part of a value-chain. And we don't acknowledge that their users have a right to access the data that they give to these services in a useable way. Google have monetised my sharing of data. They may have a strategic reason to change how it works to make more money, but they shouldn't have the right to simply deprive me of my archive.

There are parallels of course. Facebook have occasionally abused our expectations on privacy (and I doubt if most users yet understand the 'if you're not paying for it, you're part of the service being sold' argument. Millions of people may be consenting to things they wouldn't consent to if they understood them fully.

This is an issue that I'd expect journalists and politicians to take more seriously than they do. OK - politicans are crap at acting on issues they don't really understand - they have an excuse here.

But I've really written all of this because I've got into a debate with one quite-good tech/media commentator who seems to think it's alright for 'free' services that occupy monopolistic and incumbency position to suddenly turn to their users and say 'no pay - no play!'. 

It isn't alright. They're not free services. Normally, a company that has monopolistic and incumbency privileges wouldn't be allowed to do this. But because of the free-shiny, Google can. Like Apple and Google do.
"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

*Full disclosure: I do policy work for BECTU

1 comment:

Mil said...

I think even when you pay, you can't always play. My brother posted recently on how he's come to realise one of the downsides of freemium cloud services like Google's is precisely the lack of control you have over UIs and other functionality matters. Yes. You can always eventually find plug-ins and workarounds people invent to do just that - but do you really want to spend the rest of your living days working around the anti-social behaviours of all these social media behemoths?

The problem is that even with proprietorial products like - for example - Microsoft Office, you don't only get unwanted changes from the point of file structures but also - in the case of Office's most recent manifestation - even the UI. And here you're paying for the honour. Obliged to update because docx is no longer compatible with previous versions, you have to pay for third-party training to get people used to what is essentially a brand new product.

Whether you pay or not these days, the most important customer is always going to be the shareholder and not the end-user. Or perhaps, as I think you yourself suggested recently, the prejudices of the top-management bods in all these massive organisations ...