Google, lock-in, and evil

Google wants to avoid evil. The best way to do that is by formally pledging to be open. Open source. Open APIs. Open data. This will allow the rest of us to work with Google without necessarily trusting Google.

The last week of news surrounding Google doesn't paint a picture of a lovey-dovey company that just wants to help you search. The backdrop for all of the news is the emergence of "cloud platforms" upon which developers can build. It used to be that developers would write for Windows or Linux: Now they're writing applications to run in the cloud of their choice (Google, Bungee Labs, Salesforce, or open-source Coghead)

The problem with this approach, as Tim O'Reilly points out with reference to Google, is it paves the way to lock-in that the "offline" world could only dream of inflicting:

I've been warning for some time that the first phase of Web 2.0 is the acquisition of critical mass via network effects, but that once companies achieve that critical mass, they will be tempted to consolidate their position, leading ultimately to a replay of the personal computer industry's sad decline from an open, energetic marketplace to a controlled economy.

Enter Google's soft disavowal of its "Don't do evil" motto. As Techcrunch suggests, Google likely doesn't like being held to this (somewhat subjective) standard anymore, now that not doing evil becomes ever more difficult at its size and scale.

So what is Google to do? How can Google preserve the impressive heft of its momentum without strangling its potential supporters?

For me, the answer is simple: Put Google's actions beyond scrutiny by making them subject to open API, open source, and open data pledges.

Open source, for example, doesn't look into motives. Motives are immaterial; license is all. If I abide by the GPL I am absolutely guaranteed certain freedoms - the copyright holder simply can't take them away from me, no matter how much she may try.

Google has pledged to open data in the past. It should formalize that pledge and challenge its competitors to follow suit.

Google has also been a supporter of open source through source-code contributions, Summer of Code, etc. There's still plenty of room to shore up that support, however, by proactively abiding by the terms of open-source licenses which may not require open source according to old definitions of "distribution," but which certainly imply it according to the spirit of these open-source licenses. In tandem, Google should stop fighting licenses like the AGPL.

Google is not an evil company. It is, however, at an inflection point where its size will make it both prone to "evil" and the appearance of evil (according to interested onlookers) on a regular basis. To avoid becoming like Microsoft - admired but mistrusted - Google should formally pledge to openness.

Such a pledge won't hurt Google's business. If anything, it will do the opposite.

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