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Big Mouth: You and whose army?

Tech giants have more power than some politicians, argues Gary Marshall. You may think they’re on your side, but they deserve the same scrutiny

This article first appeared in issue 238 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

In November, Google urged the internet to Take Action. The message was simple: bad stuff was about to happen, and if we let it happen, that would be bad. If you think bad stuff is bad, and you believe not only that the stuff is bad but that bad stuff shouldn’t happen, you should sign a petition to show how bad you think the problem of bad stuff is.

I’m exaggerating, but only just: for a firm dedicated to organising all of the world’s information, Google’s Take Action campaign was strangely fact-free. It urged people to petition against closed-door negotiations by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but it didn’t really say why. “Some proposals could permit governments to censor legitimate speech – or even allow them to cut off internet access.” What proposals? What do they say? Google didn’t say, or provide links.

When someone urges me to join their cause but doesn’t tell me what the cause actually is, a wee red light starts to flash in my brain. Was the internet genuinely in peril, or was Google’s real concern the proposal to make national competition authorities consider global market power as well as national market share when investigating multinational tech firms? Was Google worried about censorship, or just proposals to tax sites such as YouTube?

In this case I think Google’s concerns were legitimate ones – the ITU is overly secretive, and you’ll find an excellent analysis on Talking Points Memo – but I wonder how many people checked out the issues before tweeting their support and signing the petition. Google isn’t an independent, unbiased charity: it’s an enormous multinational corporation with its own agenda, so when it urges everyone to rise up and fight bad stuff, it’s important to ask: bad for whom? Bad for the internet, or just bad for Google?

It’s very easy to get sucked into simplistic arguments online: for example, there’s a bit more to the issue of copyright reform than the “Record labels bad! Destroy copyright!”, “Pirates bad! Ban the internet!” infantilism that typifies so much of the anti-piracy debate. When politicians suggest regulating the internet, we’re quick to look for lobbyists and vested interests; when corporations suggest we send politicians a message, we should look just as closely.

Take Action. Google says: “Only governments have a voice at the ITU,” as if elected governments are somehow less democratic than, say, the board of Google. “Governments alone should not determine the future of the internet.” Well, no, not the loony ones anyway, but I’d still rather have elected politicians than unaccountable corporations – unless, of course, those politicians are representing the views of unaccountable corporations that have spent over $20 million on lobbying politicians in the US alone.

The internet has grown up, and internet firms aren’t cool kids sticking it to The Man: in many cases, they are The Man. When a firm asks you to join its cause, don’t just accept what it tells you. Google it.

Photography: Iain MacLean
 

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