Is Google a dangerously toxic monopoly?

Google - a toxic monopoly and amoral menace?
Google - a toxic monopoly and amoral menace?

Google has hit back at fresh accusations by columnist Henry Porter in this weekend's Observer newspaper. The column stated that the web superpower is an "amoral menace" with little concern for copyright-holders and artists' rights.

"Exactly 20 years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote the blueprint for the world wide web, the internet has become the host to a small number of dangerous WWMs - worldwide monopolies that sweep all before them with exuberant contempt for people's rights, their property and the past," wrote Porter, putting Google at the very top of his list of 'WWMs'.

Porter cites the recent Google and PRS case, in which, "when the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

"It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go," argues Porter. "Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe."

In the final analysis

In Porter's opinion, Google is, "in the final analysis, a parasite that creates nothing," noting that the traditional newspaper business is forced to freely give its content to Google because, "in effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial."

At the heart of Porter's argument is not a selfish attempt to justify his own wage, but an appeal to the classic American Jeffersonian philosophy that values the fourth estate higher than government.

"Newspapers are the only means of holding local hospitals, schools, councils and the police to account," goes his impassioned plea, "and on a national level they are absolutely essential for the good functioning of democracy."

Porter is concerned that "all of this is under threat" and that "one detects in Google something that is delinquent and sociopathic, perhaps the character of a nightmarish 11-year-old….This particular 11-year-old has known nothing but success and does not understand the risks, skill and failure involved in the creation of original content, nor the delicate relationships that exist outside its own desires and experience."

Google responds

Google's own Director of Communications for UK, Ireland and the Netherlands, Peter Barron, responds to Porter's column, noting first that what he doesn't say, "is that almost all of Google's services are completely free to the public and the only thing that ties people in is their trust in what we offer - alternative services are a click away."

The Google man is in broad agreement that "the internet and consumer behaviour have disrupted the traditional business models of content producers" but argues that "Google is committed to finding solutions, and [has] helped our publishing partners including the Observer - earn over £3bn online last year."

As for paying artists, Google sees that "there's no perfect solution yet" for YouTube video views and continues to claim that "it would be unsustainable for YouTube to pay the PRS a sum which would mean we made a loss on every music video viewed."

"Google is a technology company whose aim is to help people get access to the world's information and make it useful," says Barron.

"We don't do content, but we do make a huge investment in innovative services and applications which provide usefulness and entertainment as people spend more of their time on the web."


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Adam Hartley