Google doesn’t like walled gardens — except its own

1Executive Summary

In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he believes the future of the “open Internet” is at risk — from not only the rise of censorship by countries such as China but also the rapid growth of “walled gardens” such as Facebook and the app-device ecosystem developed by Apple. Brin said Google remains committed to the principles of openness, because that is the best approach for users. But if that’s true, then why is the company trying to build its own closed network, known as Google+? Because the open vs. closed debate is a little more complicated than it first appears, particularly when it comes to Google.

Brin — who is now in charge of product development at the company, after his fellow co-founder Larry Page took over as chief executive officer last year — said in his interview that there are “very powerful forces that have lined up against the open Internet on all sides and around the world.” In particular, he criticized Facebook and Apple for controlling not only what happens on their own platforms but also the way data flows from those platforms to the Web at large. Brin also added that Google might never have existed in a world controlled by Facebook, because:

You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive. The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.

The Google co-founder is not the only person who feels this way about Facebook and Apple: Not that long ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the man who invented the Web — expressed a similar view about how walled gardens and proprietary ecosystems are a danger to the open Web. In a long essay in Scientific American magazine, he said that “large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web” and then referred to Facebook as a “silo.” Berners-Lee also talked about Apple and how apps are a “closed world,” because they don’t allow for links or the sharing of content with the open Web.

Criticizing walled gardens while also trying to build one

What makes Brin different, however, is that even as he slams Facebook and Apple for being a danger to the open Web, his company is busy trying to build its own kind of walled garden. And in order to promote that garden, it has changed its search results to conform to its own special rules. Both of these moves have raised concern not only from users who dislike the changes but also from federal regulators who are already in the process of investigating the company for anticompetitive behavior.

Despite these moves, Google is still very open in many important ways. It has an internal Data Liberation initiative, which allows users of Gmail and other services to download all of their user data quickly and easily. The Web giant got into a very public spat with Facebook in 2010 that was centered around that ability: Google changed its terms of use to require that other services also allow downloading of user information, and Facebook balked — which led to a somewhat childish back-and-forth between the two over who had the authority to do this (Facebook now allows you to download the contact info of your friends but only if those friends specifically authorize it).

But while Google is committed to giving users their data if they want to leave Google services and wants others to do the same, the company’s behavior around its Google+ network has been criticized as an attempt to build its own walled garden — in other words, exactly what it has accused Facebook and Apple of doing. And while users may be able to download their data from the Google network, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s truly open. For example, the service so far has no APIs, which would allow other services to integrate and exchange information with Google+ (the company says it is considering adding them).

Most critical for some, the Web giant has been promoting its social network by altering the results it shows to search users, both by inserting Google+ content and links into those results and by recommending the accounts of specific Google users to searchers on a particular topic. The search company promotes this feature — which it calls Search Plus Your World — as a benefit, but others say it goes too far and effectively reneges on Google’s central promise to users that its search results would always be objective. Alex Macgillivray, a lawyer who used to work at Google and is now chief counsel at Twitter, called it a “Bad day for the Internet.”

Why should Google be open when no one else is?

Google’s challenge is not an easy one: The company’s dominance in online advertising is being challenged by Facebook and other networks as advertisers increasingly look for social engagement and targeting as a benchmark for value, rather than the static results provided by Google’s algorithm. In order to make its search and advertising results more social, Google needs the kinds of social signals that users of Facebook and Twitter provide thousands of times a day. But it can’t get the data it needs from either social network, since they (rightly) see Google as a competitor. As entrepreneur and angel investor Chris Dixon has pointed out, smaller players in a market are always interested in getting access to larger players, but the reverse is not always true.

So while Microsoft’s Bing search engine includes data from both Facebook and Twitter as part of a licensing deal (the software giant also owns 1.6 percent of Facebook’s shares), Google has neither. It had a deal that gave it access to Twitter’s firehose of data up until last year, but the arrangement was not renewed. Sources say the social network wanted to charge Google a lot more for that access than it had previously been paying, but neither side has confirmed exactly why the relationship dissolved. If the Web giant truly wanted its search to be as open to social signals as possible, why hasn’t it put more effort into negotiating a deal with Twitter or Facebook?

In many ways, Google is impaled on the horns of a dilemma: It can’t get the increasingly important social data it needs, because Facebook, Twitter and Apple are closed systems, and that’s also likely a big part of why the company is so interested in pushing for a more open Web. But at the same time, it is desperately trying to build its own version of a walled garden in order to compete with those other networks and become a social powerhouse in its own right. So if it seems as though Google is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the open Web, that’s probably because it is.

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