A colleague has been burgled while away for the day. The fourth time in just a few months. The thief came through the front window in broad daylight, chiselled out the security bolts before entering and helping himself to whatever he fancied, then calmly left by the point of entry in full view of the neighbours.
This seems an appropriate tale to share as we consider the mounting crisis in how we control search engines. Microsoft this week temporarily suspended a new feature in Bing which made it even easier for users to grab images from image libraries and other image sources. It took a legal threat from Getty Images to get the Redmond giant to back down.
This comes after years of protestations by commercial image companies, music owners, film and TV rights holders, etc that their intellectual property does not exist simply to enrich the appeal of search engines and thereby the profits of the companies behind them.
Meanwhile, this week we also read that long-standing anti-trust actions by the EU against Google are going nowhere slowly. A proposed settlement seems unlikely to be agreed. The company continues to run rings around the bureaucrats, legislators and their lawyers who are only now realising that perhaps they should also investigate Android as part of the Google problem. Doh.
Behind these headlines of big business wrestling lies a moral, legal and political conundrum. It is one that anybody in the creative industries needs to hold a position on now. We need to be in the vanguard of campaigns for change because we create the intellectual property that is a core part of the search engine’s offer. The products of our labour and talent have been abused and stolen for years and have fed the search giants that are now wreaking havoc with all aspects of our society – from the survival of high street shops to the credibility of international law. We must believe we can help change things for the better.
For too long we have naively accepted the positive implications of Google’s vision that it exists “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. We have left it to largely manage this huge responsibility alone. We accept the various negatives of corporate giantism, possible monopolistic practices and all the rest because we need great search engines and Google’s is the greatest we have ever had. Many, many times, every day, we take for granted the apparent freedom that we have to use this amazing tool for finding information. (Some of us also use Bing or Safari but there’s only one company that dominates this market.)
Along with the great benefits of this – from countless small social connections through all kinds of education to the very strengthening of democracy around the world – we accept that those behind it need income and reward and freedom to get on with the job. We have come to accept that they will slip advertising in there, perhaps distort the results a little, work slyly to keep competitors at bay. As long as we think we get what we need we are OK.
But now that search is so integrated into our life, into how society runs, rather like the water supply, it is intolerable to accept the lack of transparency that exists around a search engine’s plans and rules and governance. Our businesses, even our society, can be and are manipulated by the algorithms and business policies of search giants.
By being a corporate entity, beholden to its shareholders first and foremost, there are pressures that are odds to societies, nations, and global political alliances. Google presents itself as somehow outside and beyond such pressures but as we know from slip-ups in China, or in relation to pressures from the US secret services, the Google mantra of ‘don’t be evil’ is a relativist nightmare. And, ironically for a company so keen on making everybody else’s information freely available, its own decisions and actions are typically executed with great secrecy.
I am not saying anything particularly new in outlining the challenges of being Google: but the point of this article is to say the creative industries have a responsibility to be more active in driving change. We in the creative industries need to help the company. As it moves forward in making content more available – for example, with its attempts to present deeper content from books, or with the efforts to make visual search more precise and useful – there needs to be more positive and highly innovative thinking coming from the creators of the content, not just reactions to the technology shift.
The old royalties model never worked that well and is now very unfit for purpose. For example, a much more extensive measurement of micro-royalties, representing how information is valued and consumed today, run by independent technology services, needs to be part of the future. This could enfranchise payment to a much wider and more accurate group of beneficiaries. It may even have a significant impact on social representation and organisation. It would require legal developments. It would be a modest tax on the profits of the tech companies, in exchange for a legitimisation of their use of content. But we can never simply let Google come up with the solution; that is never going to be acceptable. We must help them help us and in the process reposition and moderate the power of search engines in our lives.
In the longer term, the very structure and ownership of large search companies will need to be reconsidered in a way that the EU and the US government is wholly failing to attend to. Only the repressive anti-democratic nations such as China and Russia seem able to repress search engine power – and that is no model to follow. Lord Acton nailed the problem in 1887 when he wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” I greatly admire Google and its founders, but we – the owners of content – need to help it manage its power, its open and fair presentation to the world.
If we put it in comparative terms, as I intimated with my introductory tale, then we have a situation where search engines currently facilitate theft in plain sight of us all, while the police are always somewhere else. Extensive petty crime is usually evidence of other social problems that need treating, rather than being just dealt with by repression. Society has to take responsibility for dealing with the motives as well as the outcomes. And so it is with handling Google and other large corporates when they try to cope with near-absolute power. As the communications industry, at the very least we should be able to make a lot of inventive and embarrassing noise about the issues rather than conspiring with the near-silence.
Lewis Blackwell is an author and editor-at-large of PQ Blackwell, a director of Blipfoto, and former worldwide creative head of Getty Images and editor of Creative Review