Friday, January 16, 2009

Is Google Government Good Government?

Hats off to Talking Points Memo for bringing more attention to a critical issue for anyone concerned with public accountability and state authority: the use of third-party commercial sites in the control of a single corporate monopoly by government agencies and by incoming President Obama.

In "The Googlization of Obama," Virtualpolitik pal Siva Vaidhyanathan points out that the soon-to-be 44th President of the United States is not only using the popular Flash video platform but also perpetuating ties to corporate executives who may have future business in conflict with the interests of the federal government.

Consider how intertwined the Obama administration and Google already are. Obama relied heavily on YouTube to do his virtual campaigning last year. CEO Eric Schmidt campaigned for and with Obama. And most of the leading execs at Google donated to the campaign.

All of this is happening as Google is making its move in Washington. Google knows it faces the real possibility of anti-trust scrutiny, criticism for its acquiescence to the authoritarian wishes of the government of the People's Republic of China, and many millions of copyright complaints over YouTube. As Google grows in presence and importance, it rubs up against the public and the state even harder.

So let's sever the ties early, while both the government and Google can still be disentangled.

In making his argument, Vaidhyanathan cites an excellent piece by Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center and the the interviewed subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming Virtualpolitik book. In "Dear Obama: Use BitTorrent for your Fireside podcasts," Soghoian pleads with Obama to show how this powerful technology for the distribution of digital content with large file sizes could be used for legitimate purposes rather than continue to have lawmakers associate communities of innovation with the rhetorics of criminality.

Even if we don't live in the best of possible worlds and BitTorrent isn't used; more open sites like Metavid have been happy to publish Internet hearings long before YouTube and to do so with much better metadata systems to catalog the information and to make it searchable in more meaningful ways, unlike the crude YouTube keyword system of folksonomies that is driven by the popularity metrics and accidental aggregations that advertisers and marketers care about.

Talking Points also ran an excellent piece called "Google and the Public (Video) Record" by author Randall Stross that builds on Vaidhyanathan's analysis to make a sustained case against rushing ahead with a deal between YouTube and the General Services Administration to archive videos of public hearings and other legislative proceedings without more critical forethought.

I'm not comfortable with Google's volunteering to provide the National Archives with a video annex, gratis, not because the government is a monolith---the head of the Archives does not get to call the head of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and and remove prospective targets of investigation---but because Google would acquire the halo of the government seal, which strikes me as unseemly and inappropriate---especially if Google turns out to be the only company willing to serve as host.

If the GSA could simultaneously sign up three or four companies who would all host the videos, my concerns would be greatly eased. I don't think that is likely: it's too costly. If Microsoft had no stomach for a sustained effort to try to match Google in book scanning, it does not seem likely it will step up to be a new content provider in this area, either. The required investment would be too large; the payoff for the company too amorphous.

Nor do I think it's likely that individual government agencies will find the funds to host the videos themselves. Consider relatively tiny text files, which cost next-to-nothing to archive and serve, but which have been too burdensome to be provided to the public for free in some cases that I know of---the federal court system charges to be able to view pages online, while the SEC does not.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home