Consumer associations would immediately target such a company and file lawsuits against them — and win almost always. The consumers’ right to use a service based on what they have signed up to register used to be very strongly protected, and there was no way a company could change those rights without the client’s permission. There was also no way you could legitimately attract clients, promise them a lot of things, and when they had parted with their money, present them with something completely different. To this day, in the atom-based industry, this still holds. If I buy an Apple computer and get a package of biscuits instead, because Apple suddenly thought it would be a nice idea to accept my money but deliver biscuits instead of computers by subtly changing the terms of sale agreement after I had signed the previous ones — they cannot get away with that.
But on the digital service industry, the rules are completely different. You can change terms of service at whim. You can kick users out without giving them any kind of compensation. You can take their assets, shut them out of your service without reason, and leave them out, screaming, without the right to get any compensation, without even the right to sue (and even if you’d be crazy enough to sue a megacorp, how can you beat their army of lawyers earning dozens or hundreds of millions of US$ per year?). This is the trend of this new millenium, one where consumers are just data assets to be sold as profiling data, but giving them absolutely no rights at all, except the right to remain silent.
So as of today I’ve closed down my Google Profile, and, with it, my participation in the Google Plus open beta-testing. I’d be insane to let Google’s policies that have suddenly changed and apply just to stupid volunteers that spend their time testing a service for Google interfere with all the other services they provide, which are tied to my account, one that I use to pay Google for services, and one that Google pays me for allowing them to place ads on my websites. This is so completely insane that, in a few generations, I’m sure this will be shown on business schools as an example of how the world was absolutely mad in the 2010s.
Google should have known better. Page and Brin come from a generation of geeks that are used to open source, to crowdsourcing, to volunteers donating time and code, to widespread user participation of clients and companies. The first rule of any business is not to bite at the hand that feeds you: this means respecting the customers willing to participate on helping you deliver new and better products. It’s not morally right — or worse: it doesn’t make any business sense — to kick out the very few that are eagerly helping you out with fixing bugs, for free.
So I guess I’m back to Second Life, Earth’s Last Bastion of Pseudonymity, where most consumer rights are still respected and somewhat protected. But it’s also time to reflect where we want to be in ten years. The Internet was based on the principle that, in a federated network, users cannot be hurt by corporations with insane policies. This worked amazingly well for at least 30 or so years. We’re now feeling deeply in the flesh what it means to abandon the federated model and move to centralised models. As governments have outsourced most of their core to corporations, too much power has been put in their hands, to the extent that there is now no way to curb that power, and no way to get citizens’ rights to be defended by anyone. As governments become less and less able to control what corporations are doing, these will roll out more and more limitations and “voluntary supression” of one’s own citizen rights to use their services, just because they can. Even a massive cry out against Facebook’s and Google Plus’ policies would be ineffective. Contrary to common sense, the vast majority of the population wants less freedom and more control. Minorities in the Internet cannot be stopped in a federated model, but they can be completely hushed in a centralised model. And if you’re shut out of Google, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and the rest of the social media sites — what choices are left? Where do you go if you’re locked out by the megacorps?
The cyberpunk dystopias are amongst us. Here, now, not in the distant future. With a collapsing virtual economy, and an uncertain future, governments become weaker and weaker, and the economy — or whatever will be left of it — will remain in the hands of a handful of megacorps who will effectively rule the world. These are not “totalitarian” governments — since “totalitarianism” applies just to governments, not to corporations, who are never democratic anyway — but they have just one interest in mind: making a lot of money out of their clients, but not truly worrying about what rights they might have or not. That’s secondary.
A teacher of mine once said: “Vows are things that we take in moments of sanity to remind us what to do when we’re completely insane”. In a moment of sanity, Page & Brin wrote their philosophy in ten points, of which #6 is the famous “You can make money without doing evil” motto (suggested originally by Gmail’s original developers). Although it strictly applies to Web advertising, this motto was part of Google’s IPO leaflet, and it has been constantly employed by Google at every opportunity. Google then further wrote a Code of Conduct for Google employees stating the following as a conclusion:
Google aspires to be a different kind of company. It’s impossible to spell out every possible ethical scenario we might face. Instead, we rely on one another’s good judgment to uphold a high standard of integrity for ourselves and our company. We expect all Googlers to be guided by both the letter and the spirit of this Code. Sometimes, identifying the right thing to do isn’t an easy call. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your manager, Legal or Ethics & Compliance.
And remember . . . don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!
Well, this is one of the moments of utter insanity where Googlers and their management are supposed to be reminded by their vows not to do evil. Ultimately, I think that they will have to change their motto to “Don’t do evil unless it’s justified”, which is just another form of moral relativism.
In the mean time, the only way to protect citizens’ rights on the Internet and make sure that megacorps cannot take them away at whim is to make sure that we get more and more federated systems, and stop using centralised, proprietary solutions that will create quasi-monopolies in the hands of a few ruthless people. At this stage, it’s pointless to believe that governments, or judicial systems, will do anything to undermine the trend of allowing megacorps to act as Big Brothers, watching all, and deciding who is allowed to join their services or not, and under which terms. It’s also pointless to believe that minorities or non-conforming individuals will have a role to play in the forthcoming years. While the attention of the media might be occasionally turned to these issues, ultimately they will be ignored — like Microsoft managed for over a decade to survive the many government-level fees, both in the US and Europe, to include their own browser as part of their operating system (it was cheaper for them to pay the fees than to risk that everybody installs a different browser than Microsoft’s own). The way megacorps in the Internet industry laugh at governments and civil rights activists, and pretty much do what they please, has reached a level where there is no turning back. And the major problem is that so many high-profile California-based start-ups became giant empires with partners that are borderliners and see the world in very different colours than we do.
The only hope to survive this crisis is to rely more and more on federated services, where you can jump from company to company, as the change policies continuously to limit your freedom and your rights as an individual, but will still be able to get access to a service. Again, think how convenient email is. There are so many options of email providers out there, and you can pick the one that benefits you most. Think how easy it is to set up a Web server in one place and move it across the world if you get kicked out by the hosting provider for violating any silly “rule” they might have come up with. Your email address or your domain name will not be affected; your data are your property, and it’s your choice where you place it.
Ironically, before moving my blog to my current provider, the first think I asked was what their policies were regarding adult content. Not if their services were good, or reliable, or if they had service-level agreements, that sort of thing you usually ask when shopping for a hosting provider. And ut’s not as if I’d planned to open a porn website 🙂 But, who knows, I expected to publish some pictures of my avatar wearing a bikini, and for some companies, that’s the nearest thing to pornography… Their answer was “you can do whatever you wish with your account, so long it’s not illegal” (which basically meant no online gambling, no piracy distribution, and no spamming). So I went with them with confidence. So far, nothing that I’ve done on the 100+ websites hosted with them has so much as raised an eyebrow. But the important point is that if tomorrow their CEO goes insane and starts controlling who is using their services and how, I can simply pack all my data and move elsewhere to another provider. And that’s simply because the Web is a federated service without anyone really setting the rules for being part of the World-Wide Web.
Social networking has to be like that as well.