The buzz inside Google is overwhelmingly positive about what the company does and how we will all benefit from the results—including the embattled denizens of newspapers and magazines who increasingly see Google as an enabler of their demise. Barely a decade ago, Google received its first $25 million investment, based on search technology developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the company’s cofounders. By the time it went public just five years later, “Google” was a verb. Today it is the dominant force in what has turned out to be the central organizing principle of the Internet’s impact on our lives: the search function and the accompanying links, keywords, and advertising that make sense and commerce out of the vast universe of information and entertainment on the Web. Google is as important today as were Microsoft, IBM, and the original AT&T, linchpins of our culture and economy, in the development of modern computation and communications.
By contrast, the great twentieth-century print companies, such as Time Inc., Tribune, and The New York Times Company, are in a battle for survival, or at least reinvention, against considerable odds. Google has become a kind of metaphor for the link economy and the Internet’s immense power to organize content. Yet as the global leader among Web-based enterprises, it has also become a subject of debate and controversy, even though its sense of itself is still as benign as the playful tenor of its Manhatttan offices, where the fittings include scooters for zipping around the halls and a lavish free cafeteria.
At lunch there, I was surrounded by an animated crowd that included Brin, Google’s thirty-six-year-old cofounder, wearing jeans, a sweater, and a demeanor indistinguishable from the rest of his eager young crew. Google maintains that it is actively working to make journalism and literature truly democratic and, functionally, easier to do. Google’s “Office of Content Partnerships” sent me a list of “free tools journalists could use today for nearly every aspect of their work,” including Blogger, a platform for publishing online; Google Analytics, for measuring Web traffic; Google Web site Optimizer; and other tools. The publishers of newspapers, magazines, and books, recognize that Google and the link-referral service it represents have become inextricable from their audiences’ lives, and indispensable to reaching that audience in large numbers.
And yet there is a growing sense among the “legacy” media, at least, that Google facilitates a corrosive move away from paying content providers for their work. Proceeds go instead to those who sell advertising and other services while aggregating and/or lifting material they did not create. It is true that the content providers have submitted to the link economy of their own accord. Still, in a piece last winter, I wrote that the notion that “information wants to be free” is absurd when the referral mechanism makes a fortune and the creators get scraps. That position was excoriated by some bloggers, including one who, in a quote cited on The New York Times’s Opinionator blog, called it “sheer idiocy.”
Maybe. But only two months later, the Associated Press (clearly acting on behalf of the news organizations that own it) made a similar point and initiated a process that could end in lawsuits. Addressing the Newspaper Association of America, the chairman of the AP’s board of directors, William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews, said: “We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.”
The full quote from which “information wants to be free” was lifted, by the way, is more ambiguous and complicated than that widely-quoted excerpt. The line comes from the futurist Stewart Brand, who first said it at a programmer’s convention in 1984 and elaborated in his book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, in 1987, where he wrote:
Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property,’ the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.
Brand leaves out another factor—that valuable information is expensive to produce. But two decades later, the battles he foresaw are fully engaged.