Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/23/google_on_open/

Google 'open' memo betrays deep corporate delusion

Even when we're closed, we're open

By Cade Metz

Posted in Media, 23rd December 2009 03:59 GMT

Google has sent itself a memo as part of an ongoing effort to perpetuate the self-delusion that it's the world's most open company.

Monday afternoon, at the official Google blog, Google vp Jonathan "Perfect Ad" Rosenberg published an email he recently sent to company staffers under the heading "the meaning of open." Like so many others, Google enjoys telling the world how open it is, but Rosenberg believes the company should go a step further. He strives to actually explain what the word means - and to follow that explanation to the letter.

"At Google, we believe that open systems win. They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses. Many companies will claim roughly the same thing since they know that declaring themselves to be open is both good for their brand and completely without risk. After all, in our industry there is no clear definition of what open really means. It is a Rashomon-like term: highly subjective and vitally important," he writes.

"We need to lay out our definition of open in clear terms that we can all understand and support."

Rosenberg truly believes in this mission - so much so that his description of what should be open avoids all those areas where Google is preternaturally closed. In some cases, he rationalizes the omissions. In others, he seems completely oblivious to what's been left out. And though he does say his company can "go farther," he fails to acknowledge that Google's commitment to openness inevitably disappears when it threatens the company's efforts to make lots of money.

The question is whether Rosenberg realizes he's doing so.

Naturally, "Perfect Ad" spends a good portion of his characteristically sprawling email detailing how much code Google has open sourced over the years, calling his company "the largest open source contributor in the world." That may be the truth. But he doesn't address the fact that Google open sources code only when it believes that doing so will help the company's bottom line - or at least not hurt it.

Just like any other public company, really.

He does acknowledge that Google stops short of open sourcing everything. But then, as Google so often does, he rationalizes the fact that the company has no intention of open sourcing the two things - its search and ad platforms - that have turned Google into something very close to an internet gatekeeper.

"While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source," Rosenberg says. "Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users.

"The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to 'game' our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone."

So, even when Google is closed, it's open.

After reading this particular passage, even Cnet thought of Orwell. "Am I the only one that just had Napoleon of Animal Farm flash through their minds while reading that statement?" writes Matt Asay. "Some animals are more equal than others, and some companies know better than others when to keep code closed."

What's more, Rosenberg's people-will-game-us argument doesn't necessarily stand up to scrutiny. With a blog post of his own, SiteAdvisor founder Chris Dixon swiftly counters that oft-repeated Google chestnut with some good old fashioned security know-how. "If Google is really committed to openness, it is [the search algorithms] that they need to open source," Dixon writes.

Jonathan Rosenberg

Jonathan "Perfect Ad" Rosenberg

"The alleged argument against doing so is that search spammers would be able to learn from the algorithm to improve their spamming methods. This form of argument is an old argument in the security community known as 'security through obscurity.' Security through obscurity is a technique generally associated with companies like Microsoft and is generally opposed as ineffective and risky by security experts. When you open source something you give the bad guys more info, but you also enlist an army of good guys to help you fight them."

If Google keeps search closed, it will remain the gatekeeper - whatever else it may open up. "Until Google open sources what really matters - their search ranking algorithm - you should dismiss all their other open-source talk as empty posturing," Dixon says. "And millions of websites will have to continue blindly relying on a small group of anonymous engineers in charge of the secret algorithm that determines their fate."

Unlike, say, Facebook or Yahoo!, Google is also pathologically closed when it comes to the code driving its famous back-end infrastructure. That, in turn, creates some inconvenient "vendor lock-in" atop its so-called development cloud, Google App Engine. And even when it does open source, it can be awfully closed about it.

But the salient point here is that Google is closed on search. Well, except for the other salient point: the Mountain View Chocolate Factory isn't exactly open when it comes to all that user data it's collecting on its famous back-end infrastructure.

Opaque transparency

After trumpeting Google's commitment to open source and open standards, Rosenberg pats himself on the back for a belief in "open information" - surely the most delusional claim of his 4,440-word memo. "Unlike open technology, where our objective is to grow the Internet ecosystem, our approach to open information is to build trust with the individuals who engage within that ecosystem (users, partners, and customers)," he says.

"Trust is the most important currency online, so to build it we adhere to three principles of open information: value, transparency, and control."

Never mind that Eric Schmidt seemed hell-bent on destroying any existing trust when he told the world that only miscreants care about online privacy. Rosenberg's words are that much more dangerous. He genuinely believes that Google should be lauded for a commitment to privacy and, yes, "transparency."

Naturally, he points to the Google Dashboard, a new service that ostensibly explains what Google knows about you. "We are, to the best of our knowledge, the first Internet company to offer a service like this and we hope it will become the standard," Rosenberg says.

But the Dashboard - like so much Google "privacy" PR - is patently misleading. While purporting to address the problem, it ignores the meat of it.

The trouble - it should go without saying - is that Google automatically opts users into its mass data-tracking machine - and it doesn't give them a simple and obvious means of opting out. Dashboard only highlights the issue. It shows you a random collection of data associated with your Google account - something you've actively opted in to. But as the consumer watchdog known as Consumer Watchdog points out, it doesn't tell you what data is associated with your IP address. And there's no way of de-linking data from your IP.

"This was a PR gimmick," Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson says. "All it does is put in one place the info you've consciously given them." Shades of Google's claim that it "anonymizes" your data after nine months.

Rosenberg does say that Google could "go farther" with the Dashboard. But clearly, this won't involve the ability to instantly prevent Google from collecting data against your IP address. And even if it did, we all know that few people would actually use the thing. True openness would involve actually asking people before you plant a tracking cookie on their PC.

Once again, open becomes closed when the money is threatened. Google needs all that data for targeting ads.

Like any other money-driven outfit, Google is open when open suits its needs. And it's closed when closed suits. The plain truth is that Google is happy to, say, open source an operating system because this will feed the black box of an ad system that wields such control over internet dollars. Its boondoggle of a business model is tailor-made to open sourcing code - at least on the client side.

But even then, Google plays its open source cards extremely close to its chest. Aside from Apple, no tech outfit is more secretive about what goes on inside the company. That may be the ultimate irony. But it too is lost on Rosenberg.

Jonathan Rosenberg acknowledges that Google's view of open is profitable. But he fails to mention this wouldn't be the case without the closed. The way he sees it, the profits come because Google is so darn smart. "Open systems are chaotic and profitable," he says, "but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else."

On one level, this proves Rosenberg's original point. Open is like Rashomon. Google sees things quite differently than everyone else. And what a frightening thought that is. There's nothing more dangerous than someone who believes they can do no wrong. ®