Recall those fabled frogs happy in the magic pond. Playful. Distracted. The water temperature slowly rises, but the frogs don’t notice. By the time it reaches the boiling point, it’s too late to leap to safety. We are as frogs in the digital waters, and Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner has just become our frog town crier. Mr. Dopfner’s „Why We Fear Google“ ( a response to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s open letter, „A Chance for Growth“) warns of danger on the move: „The temperatures are rising fast.” If his cry of alarm scares you, that’s good. Why?
(Autorisierte deutsche Fassung: Die Google-Gefahr - Schürfrechte am Leben von Shoshana Zuboff)
First, because there is a dawning awareness that Google is forging a new kingdom on the strength of a different kind of power –– ubiquitous, hidden, and unaccountable. If successful, the dominion of this kingdom will exceed anything the world has known. The water is close to boiling, because Google understands this statement more profoundly than we do.
Second, because accessing the Web and the wider Internet have become essential for effective social participation across much of the world. A BBC poll conducted in 2010 found that 79% of people in 26 countries considered access to the Internet to be a fundamental human right. We rely on Google’s tools as we search, learn, connect, communicate, and transact. The chilling irony is that we’ve become dependent on the Internet to enhance our lives, but the very tools we use there threaten to remake society in ways that we do not understand and have not chosen.
Something new and dangerous
If there is a single word to describe Google, it is „absolute.” The Britannica defines absolutism as a system in which „the ruling power is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency.” In ordinary affairs, absolutism is a moral attitude in which values and principles are regarded as unchallengeable and universal. There is no relativism, context-dependence, or openness to change.
Six years ago I asked Eric Schmidt what corporate innovations Google was putting in place to ensure that its interests were aligned with its end users. Would it betray their trust? Back then his answer stunned me. He and Google’s founders control the super-voting class B stock. This allows them, he explained, to make decisions without regard to short-term pressure from Wall Street. Of course, it also insulates them from every other kind of influence. There was no wrestling with the creation of an inclusive, trustworthy, and transparent governance system. There was no struggle to institutionalize scrutiny and feedback. Instead Schmidt’s answer was the quintessence of absolutism: „trust me; I know best.” At that moment I knew I was in the presence of something new and dangerous whose effects reached beyond narrow economic contests and into the heart of everyday life.
Google kills Innovation
Mr. Schmidt’s open letter to Europe shows evidence of such absolutism. Democratic oversight is characterized as „heavy-handed regulation.” The „Internet”, „Web”, and „Google” are referenced interchangeably, as if Goggle’s interests stand for the entire Web and Internet. That’s a magician’s sleight of hand intended to distract from the real issue. Google’s absolutist pursuit of its interests is now regarded by many as responsible for the Web’s fading prospects as an open information platform in which participants can agree on rules, rights, and choice.