by David Meyer
Summary: The Gmail-Google+ privacy row is interesting on its own terms, but it’s really just part of a bigger picture that should concern all of us, particularly regulators.
Google has caused quite the stir with its announcement of new integration between Gmail and its Google+ social network. In case you missed it, Google+ users will be able to email you even if they don’t know your email address. This new “feature” is of course opt-out rather than opt-in.
Privacy advocates are outraged and rightly so — for a start, the move probably falls foul of the FTC’s post-Buzz-debacle consent decree. But I think this incident forms part of a trend in Google’s long-term evolution that could result in a much more explosive confrontation with competition regulators. And I have absolutely no idea how that confrontation would be resolved.
Perils of integration
As Stowe Boyd says over at Gigaom Research, the Gmail move looks like “another premeditated effort to force Google+ down our throats.” No change there, then – Google+ is largely a construct of the company’s highly contentious cross-service data-melding, rather than genuine user enthusiasm.
For Google, all this integration means better user profiling and more accurate ad targeting – never forget that Google is above all an advertising firm. For its users, however, the value is a lot harder to pin down. And in some cases, Google’s consolidation can be outright dangerous.
Earlier this week the Guardian reported the case of a transgender woman who accidentally outed herself to her employer because of Google’s integration of SMS into the Hangouts app in the latest version of its Android operating system. She meant to send a text message to a colleague under her old male name, and instead sent a chat message under her new female name, which she uses on her personal Google+ profile. It was an easy mistake to make – too easy – because who outside the tech world pays attention to Google’s many subtle moves?
Now, Gmail users who like to keep email and social networking separate may start getting nasty surprises too. Anyone who is a “connection” on Google+ will be able to send an email to them, even though they won’t know their email address. Yes, this can be turned off in the Gmail settings, but if Google thought a significant number of people would know to do that and follow through, it wouldn’t have made it opt-out rather than opt-in.
This actually wouldn’t be that big a deal if it weren’t for one major thing, apart from the opt-out element: many (perhaps most) Google+ “users” are barely aware that they have an account, because at no point did they have to sign up. All they had to do was be a willing user of one of Google’s other myriad services. Now they’ve been sucked into what increasingly amounts to a huge bundle of services.
What’s more, that Borg-like bundle (I’m referring to Star Trek, not Google’s internal workload-scheduling tool) is co-opting services that weren’t Google’s to start with. SMS is the obvious example, though Facebook is trying to do the same thing with its Messenger service, which is why I uninstalled Facebook’s app from my phone.
And, although it’s genuinely convenient and we mostly stopped thinking about it a long time ago, the URL bar is another – these are mostly search entry fields as well these days and, Internet Explorer aside, all major browsers default to Google Search. And now there’s email, too.
Google’s assimilation and consolidation seems unstoppable, and that may become an antitrust problem, particularly in Europe.
The European situation
The issue in Europe is one of market dominance. Google’s share of the European search market is over 90 percent, compared with a U.S. share of around 67 percent. Android’s share of smartphone sales in the 5 biggest European economies is around 70 percent, compared with just 50 percent in the U.S. That Android share is growing fast, and then of course there’s the defaulting to Google search in iOS, which has an 18 percent share of smartphone sales in the EU5 (versus 43 percent in the U.S.)
All this is why Google already has big antitrust problems in Europe relating to search, a market which it utterly owns in that region. The company simply has too much power – Microsoft and its allies may not be natural sympathy magnets, but they certainly have a point when they complain about how Google can make rival services just disappear if it feels like it.
The thing is, Google can maybe still fix this specific problem by giving equal prominence to rival services in its results. It wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be pleasant for Google, but the European Commission’s repeated rejection of the company’s settlement efforts suggests Google may just have to bite the bullet.
But what if Google were to face antitrust action in the future that it’s constructing for itself?
The problem is, that’s an all-Google future. There is no air in it for rivals. Whereas today’s Google Search or Maps offers the user a list of the results, into which a rival’s services can be inserted, the company is plainly heading for a virtual assistant scenario where it gives one result.
It’s a long-term play for sure, but it’s what Google Now is for. It’s what Google Glass, with its leaning towards bite-sized chunks of information, is for. It’s a scenario where asking Google for something is like asking a friend or colleague while in a rush – you don’t want a list of options, you just want the answer. Who’s selling that product? This company. Any pizza places around here? This one. Maybe we’ll be asking these questions of a smartwatch or smart glass, maybe we’ll be asking our Googlebot Roboservants, but one way or another it’s where we’re probably heading.
As natural-language interaction would be key, it’s no stretch to see how this virtual assistant could serve as a conduit for brief messages, as a replacement for SMS, instant messaging and so on. Admittedly, it’s currently hard to see how it could subsume more long-form formats such as email, but I bet Google’s working on a way.
The single-answer, single-point-of-communication approach would be really convenient in some ways, but it would also be grossly anti-competitive. It would make Google an all-powerful gatekeeper, which would be dangerous – look at thepunishment Google meted out to Rap Genius for its SEO-gaming ways, and imagine that power concentrated and enhanced.
This scenario would no doubt enrage regulators, probably not just in Europe, but it would also present them, and Google, with a dilemma: how do you reintroduce competition into a single-answer world? In that scenario, you can’t even take today’s nuclear option – breaking the company up – because it’s no longer a case of federated divisions; it’s a monolithic entity.
Just a thought
I don’t know how that confrontation would play out, but someone would have to win and, if Google were the victor, that would be bad for all of us. There is a point to antitrust regulation, after all – without competition, the consumer always loses out.
Of course, this may never come to pass. Despite the fact that no-one can currently outplay Google in sucking up the world’s data (OK, apart from the NSA) in order to feed a nascent artificial intelligence, there’s still a chance that IBM’s Watson will underpin some killer project that successfully takes on Google, or that Stephen Wolfram’s still fairly esoteric efforts will break into our everyday lives.
The market may shift; it may reject the single-answer future on its own — after all, Google has weak spots, such as reviews. Monopolies (which Google may or may not be, depending on when and where you’re talking about) rise and fall based on unknown unknowns: just look at Microsoft being whacked by the combination of “free” software-as-a-service and the shift to mobile.
But this certainly is Google’s Borg-like quest and there’s a reasonable chance that it will come to fruition, making it a good idea to start thinking of the consequences now. When we see the friction caused by little incidents like the Gmail-Google+ tie-in, it’s worth considering the bigger picture.