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Google openness is a closed door

Open source versus an open mind

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Comment When Google meets with Congressional staffers, hoping to convince US lawmakers that it's nothing but good for the world, the web giant likes to say that it believes in openness. "Open is better than closed," the company says. Open "enhances competition" and "encourages innovation." But if you ask the company to discuss its openness, it's not too open about it.

Late last week, the consumer watchdog known only as Consumer Watchdog uncovered the canned pitch that Google recently launched at Capitol Hill in an effort to re-spin itself. Just to show how open it is, Google promptly posted the presentation to its Public Policy Blog.

The presentation calls itself "Google, Competition, and Openness." Consumer Watchdog - a famous thorn in Mountain View's side - couldn't help but unveil an unadulterated copy of the presentation alongside an "annotated" version re-titled "Google, Anti-Competitiontive, and Openness Non-Transparent." The Watchdog tells us it's not responsible for the annotating. And we don't doubt it. Nowadays, there's no shortage of Google critics you could lay the blame on.

After the Department of Justice threatened a lawsuit over Google's ill-fated search ad pact with Yahoo! - and as both the DoJ and the FTC launch new probes - the Mountain View PR machine feels the need to buff the company's image among D.C. insiders.

"As Google has grown, the company has naturally faced more scrutiny about our business principles and practices," Google senior manager for global communications and public affairs Adam Kovacevich posted to his Public Policy Blog. "We believe that Google promotes competition and openness online, but we haven't always done a good job telling our story."

But when we asked Kovacevich to get on the phone and chat about the presentation, he tossed us a few more weblinks. Google likes to say it's open. But if you question its openness, it closes up.

Over the years, much has been made of Apple's reluctance to discuss what goes on inside the company. The Reg once questioned whether the company's marketing modus operandi was endangering the mental health of its PR staff. But Apple's epically tight lip is little more than an inconvenience for the world's journalists - and a source of perverse pleasure for unreconstructed fanbois. Apple is merely a hardware manufacturer with a few sidelines in software and media. In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the company is tight-lipped or not.

Meanwhile, Google controls sprawling amounts of the world's online information. And its ad system - the machine that makes all the money - is a moving target that even experienced advertisers don't fully understand. What advertisers are paying for - and how much they're paying - may change at any time, and so often, they're none the wiser. It matters a great deal whether Google is tight-lipped or not - and it matters even more as the company's online influence grows to unprecedented proportions.

Yes, Google is open in some ways. As its Capitol Hill presentation explains, Mountain View has opened up 100 million lines of code, and it's now hosting 150,000 open-source projects developed by non-Googlers. Its Chrome browser is open source, as is Android, its mobile operating system. But as those presentation annotations point out: when Google's riches are at stake, the company is closed in more ways than one.

In the areas where openness is most important - its ad system and its data-retention policies that feed its ad system - Google is preternaturally proprietary. And then some. The Mountain View PR machine wraps these issues in the sort of shameless spin that makes them that much harder to penetrate.

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