As a year winds down in which criticism of Google was perhaps never louder, the company used a quiet preholiday afternoon to post a manifesto on what it means to be "open."
Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president of product management, originally wrote the "The meaning of open" as a memo to employees, but posted it on Google's official blog Monday. In the essay, Rosenberg lays out Google's belief that the use of open technologies and open information are two of Google's most important core values, although reasonable people can disagree on the meaning of "open" in various contexts.
"This [disagreement] is happening often enough for me to conclude that we need to lay out our definition of open in clear terms that we can all understand and support," Rosenberg wrote. "What follows is that definition based on my experiences at Google and the input of several colleagues. We run the company and make our product decisions based on these principles, so I encourage you to carefully read, review, and debate them," he told Google employees in the memo.
Much of what Rosenberg has to say should not be new to anyone who follows Google. The company believes in open-source projects and use of open standards on the technology side of its operation, although that still doesn't mean it plans to open-source the famous search algorithm any time soon, as "opening up these systems would allow people to 'game' our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone," he wrote.
Most of the backlash against Google in recent years has come as the company has amassed a treasure trove of data on those who use its services. That means Google has to be open about what type of information it stores,, and whether or not gathering that information truly adds value to the product, Rosenberg wrote.
Google's supporters and detractors will likely find something in the memo with which to make their case either in favor of or against the company. For example, Rosenberg argues that those concerned about how big Google has become in such a short period of time should pay equal attention to how much Google has contributed to the world with things like Street View, Gmail, and Android.
"We can do these things because they are information problems and we have the computer scientists, technology, and computational power to solve them. When we do, we make numerous platforms--video, maps, mobile, PCs, voice, enterprise--better, more competitive, and more innovative. We are often attacked for being too big, but sometimes being bigger allows us to take on the impossible," Rosenberg wrote.
But just earlier, he perhaps unwittingly described why Google's love of open information makes so many people so nervous.
"On the Web, the new form of commerce is the exchange of personal information for something of value. This is a transaction that millions of us participate in every day, and it has potentially great benefits. An auto insurer could monitor a customer's driving habits in real time and give a discount for good driving--or charge a premium for speeding--powered by information (GPS tracking) that wasn't available only a few years ago," Rosenberg wrote.
It's safe to say that a sizable contingent of people do not share his belief that allowing real-time tracking of your movements by private companies--especially ones who sell a product that almost all U.S. residents who drive a car are legally obligated to purchase--is a good idea.
The memo makes it clear that Google--one of the largest technology companies on the planet--still sees itself as a force for good in the world, one that must continually fight off the old guard's desire to keep things just the way they are.
"There are forces aligned against the open Internet--governments who control access, companies who fight in their own self-interests to preserve the status quo. They are powerful, and if they succeed we will find ourselves inhabiting an Internet of fragmentation, stagnation, higher prices, and less competition," Rosenberg wrote.
His words are not likely to change anyone's impression of Google, but they do show how Google continues to experience growing pains as it navigates the tricky transition from plucky start-up to global megacorporation.
Google doesn't ever want to give up on its belief of itself as an exceptional company. But should it ever stop producing financial returns that give it cover from investors, it might be putting itself in an impossible position between those investors who demand returns and users who demand privacy and transparency.