Maybe Rupert has a point

Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 12:46 pm
William Barnes

Everybody thinks Rupert Murdoch is crazy for wanting to hide his web properties from Google, but I’ve been thinking: maybe he has a point. Bloggers and podcasters say that Rupert doesn’t understand the Internet; I think they’re probably right but I also think the bloggers and podcasters are too understanding of the Internet. They (we?) put out content for free and whenever something comes along that makes an old media guy like Rupert uncomfortable they just brush it off and laugh: “That’s the Internet for ya.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like Google and I mostly trust Google, but I can see how what they do might be called unfair. When they index websites, they make a copy. Somewhere hidden in an abandoned missile silo (I assume) they have a vast array of computers mirroring the Web. When you search, Google searches these computers and presents you with a link and a little snippet of text from the site. Everybody generally agrees that the little snippet is fair use. But what about that underground data centre? It’s a huge asset for Google and it is made up of content they copied from other people. Think about it this way: if you go to the library, look up a definition for a word and quote it in an essay, that is fair use; but if you go to the library, photocopy the entire dictionary and take it home so you can look stuff up later, what is that? Google takes home the entire library. It’s not the display that is the problem, it’s the process before the display.

But, people say, Google is providing a service. True, but they’re also capitalizing on other people’s work without paying. Further, Google’s copy of a particular website is a valuable asset whether or not Google ever sends traffic to that site. But, they continue, if you want to exclude them, you can just put a robots.txt file on your site. Also true, but if you do that then your site may as well not exist. Google won’t offer to pay to get a single site into their search engine. But, the conclude, this is the way the Internet works now, search engines index and don’t pay to do so. True again, but does it have to work this way? Why shouldn’t search engines pay sites that they index? (I can actually think of a number of extremely practical reasons but for present purposes I’ll pretend I can’t) Just because something works one way now, doesn’t mean we all just have to accept it.

[Added Mon, Nov 30, 2009] My first website went online in 1997. For 12 years, I’ve been ecstatic every time somebody read something I posted. I imagine many bloggers feel the same way. It leads us to disregard a property right that we have. When Rupert comes along with his old media view, he’s shocked. We’re all just giving Google our content; Google is making money from it and giving us nothing in return. Back in his day, people wouldn’t have stood for it and he’s not going to stand for it now. Google provides a commercial service on the back of what may be massive copyright infringement, it’s something worth thinking about.

In trying to figure out where the value comes from, ask yourself this question: who would last longer, Google without content, or content without Google?