EU’s Google Fine Isn’t Just About Business

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The EU wants Google’s smartphone platform opened up to competitors, but the action isn’t just about business…it’s about political and social authority.

Google is a rival to the very notion of nation-states, only it’s smarter and more efficiently relentless than any civil government; like a country would do, it sorts people into heterogenous groupings of preferences, biases, and behavioral inclinations. It functions more like a UN, really, sorting people into categories sometimes as small as a nation of one (a la The Truman Show), and then recognizing their flags.

Only because of its data acquisition and compiling capabilities, it sells opportunities opportunities to the highest bidders to 1) Target content to those groupings exclusively, thereby strengthening them, and 2) Nudge people toward one or more of them.

It’s less public square or information marketplace than Nuremberg Rally or TASS. If Google had a physical army, the EU would be at war with it.

The arguments against such a conflict are mostly specious, starting with Google’s own blather about “customer choice,” since there’s little choice when apps are preinstalled (which is the point of pre-installing them), and filtering information based on stated or implicit interests only limits choices (in the name of convenience).

Consumers are told that their use of search, maps, email, and other utilities that fuel their smartphone utilities are “free,” but allowing their experience of the world to be moderated by mercenary commercial interests, or the whims of angry crowds — and their understanding of the worlds thereby manipulated — comes with significant costs to their political and social well-being.

The argument that such government regulation will impede innovation is also untrue, since a business that dominates a market usually excludes competitors and resists change. Consistency is far more profitable, and when there’s no viable means to challenge those practices, there’s less innovation, not more of it.

It’s not about international trade either, since Google’s business is ex-national.

Finally, there’s a suggestion that Google may simply start charging for Android, which I think is a great idea, since it has never been free. Everyone in Google’s ecosystem deserves a clearer picture of what things cost and what they’re worth; frankly, I think the company should have to pay for the data it collects.

The argument in support of the EU’s finding is also flawed, most notably because every government intervention is usually imperfect, and less of it is preferable to more. Markets are the best mechanism for assessing and then deciding value, whether in business or politics.

Google isn’t inherently evil, and telling it to open up Android may or may not provide any benefit to anybody. More importantly, it has enabled an immense number of positives by giving people and institutions access to information. It’s so important and useful that it’s hard to imagine life without it.

And there’s the rub.

There’s no transparent marketplace in which Google or its impacts are assessed, so the EU is throwing down (another) gauntlet to say that government has a right, if not an obligation, to demand inquiry. The conversation isn’t about alternatives to Chrome on smartphones, but rather who we think should possess political and social authority.

I think its ruling is less answer than question.

[This essay was originally published at A Cross of Silicon]
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