Google’s Open Manifesto

Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP of Product Management at Google, shared an email that he sent around at the search giant the purpose of which he explains is to clarify goals around open technology and open data.

This actually reads like a white paper with some pretty credible citations. Not surprising if it is indeed meant to be a clear and consistent resource for guiding internal teams on decisions around this espoused core value of openness.

I generally think Rosenberg is more right than not on the open technology front. His rhetoric resonates with a lot I have been seeing from other thinkers on the subject of open or unencumbered systems. I certainly agree with the potential for creating markets and spurring innovation. I don’t entirely concede that embracing all things open forces Google to be far more innovative than its competitors. I think many cases can be made where Google projects and products have succumbed to their own inertia and only seen the incremental improvements Rosenberg wants to lay exclusively at the feet of closed systems.

However, I’ll grant that my view probably has more to do with Google’s nature more as a loosely joined confederation of products, projects and services. I am willing to concede that there may be a correlation between a specific groups adoption of the value of open and its rate of innovation. As such, that part of Rosenberg’s reasoning may have more to do with desired outcome than any sort of uniform reality across the search giant.

Also note that he leaves the company an out where it chooses not to open up products or services. It’s a neat inverse of the economic argument for open source, namely that where the marginal cost of production for competitors and/or the switching cost for the consumer is already low, then a closed system is just fine. I am concerned that may be a bit of a rhetorical trap that Google could trot out and snap shut as needed where its experiments in openness yield lack luster results. That could just be the voice of my inner cynic.

Credit should be given to Rosenberg for admitting that on the question of open data, Google hasn’t made as much progress as it has on technology. His response to that gap, explaining three guiding values–value, transparency, and control–is tantalizing. The examples he cites about historical changes in commercial exchanges are telling, especially his mention of bullae, or seals, as an enabler for long distance commerce. His discussion of user control would seem to dovetail with that but I think it is just as telling that he chose to lead off with the discussion of value. I take it as a reminder that Google is always going to seek our personal data.

They may offer interesting and even valuable services for it, but at the end of the day this is always going to be a source of tension in their efforts to increase their own transparency and to provide better control to users. If Google really can balance user control well in the equation, especially against that time and space warping pull of valuable personal data, then I’d give them fair odds of living up to the vision Rosenberg is clearly trying to sell.

I would give them better odds if they invested some of that open technology love in tools and standards that allowed users to keep their personal data on a third party service and more closely audit Google’s usage after data has been exchanged. I would love to see even a small fraction of the computer science brain trust there invested in open identity and open trust systems. It seems like a long time since we’ve seen any promising developments. I think if anyone could crack the nut of some sort of transactional privacy, it would be one of the staggeringly intelligent academics Google has sequestered.

As manifestos go, this one is well written and well argued. As ever with Google, though, the proof is in how they act. If they live up to these grand principles better than they have in the past, then we do indeed stand to benefit. The problem is that there is very little risk in Rosenberg sharing this vision. Especially on the privacy front, Google is already taking a bit of a drubbing in public opinion. If they fail to improve, who is going to be surprised? So why not share this message?

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, here, but with the understanding that Rosenberg has also given us a fair yardstick against which we can now measure Google’s future actions. Hopefully enough folks will do so that perhaps if Google continues to struggle, user push back will finally start to be felt and even make a difference. Stranger things have happened (like Mozilla endorsing Microsoft’s Bing for its relatively better privacy policy).

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