Google’s Antitrust Future

Mark Steyn’s April 4, 2018 piece on the YouTube gunwoman Nasim Aghdam included two wonderful passages about the Internet as Google and its YouTube subsidiary are remaking it. Commenting on YouTube itself, Steyn writes:

YouTube is a racket: industrial copyright theft on a planet-wide scale. They get Gladys Scroggins of 27b Elm Street to do most of the active thievery – posting, say, her favorite Michael Jackson video – and then they become one of the biggest corporate behemoths in history by selling advertising off her theft, and tossing the occasional dime Gladys’ way. If you raise an objection to anything they’re doing, you get 47 emails from fellows with different first names – “Bob”, “Dave”, “Nigel”, “Kelli-Su”, “Miguel”, “Rajiv”, “LaShon’dra”, “Bud” – all reciting the exact same boilerplate screw-you response.

As it is, what finally put the shooter, Aghdam, over the edge with YouTube was her ridiculously low views-to-earnings ratio: 300,000 views for 10 cents. Expanding on how YouTube can demonetize and remonetize down its accounts at will (and often for political reasons), Steyn adds:

Why, it’s almost like being made to sit at the back of the cyber-bus or use a separate de-monetized drinking fountain… Don’t like it? Well, you can go to a rock-ribbed conservative like, say, Senator Mike Lee of Utah. But Google/YouTube recently moved into his state and — surprise! — he now seems disinclined to rock that particular boat. Tucker Carlson interviewed him, and some edgy Internet types lifted the interview and posted it to YouTube, billing Senator Lee as “Google’s Number One bootlicker” — and then complained that Google/YouTube had “shadow banned” them so they’d only just realized that Google/YouTube were preventing them cleaning up with Google/YouTube ad revenue by posting somebody else’s content on Google/YouTube in order to trash Google/YouTube. That right there is the Internet in a nutshell.

Steyn is right as far as he goes, but the problem is even more insidious and pervasive. It’s not just YouTube that is violating copyright willy-nilly. Google itself is increasingly repackaging content from the web and making it available to users without users needing to go to the sites from which the content was taken (albeit, Google will provide a link). With images, the problem is even worse: it’s possible to look up images and usually find what one wants without ever leaving Google.

Google, as a search engine, should in some sense provide a glorified index of the Web to help us find what we want elsewhere on the Web (i.e., where the material was found in the first place and with the the people who actually own the copyright or IP). But instead, Google has become an insatiable feeding machine that ingests everything it can from the Web, and thereafter incorporates it for internal use and external consumption.

I write this as someone who made a fair amount of money doing an online business that would have been impossible without Google, and yet this same business took periodic hits (50% or more downturn in business) when Google decided to update its algorithm. My relationship with Google is consequently love-hate, perhaps more hate since I sold my business.

Google controls a tremendous amount of economic activity. An analogy I often use in conversation to describe Google’s role in business is that of a system of roads. Real roads that go by brick and mortar businesses are more or less permanent, and you can count on customers getting to you consistently and reliably on the basis of those roads.

Google, by contrast, represents a network of virtual roads, and with the push of a button they can change the entire road structure, so a large and thriving business that was on a major access thoroughfare is now suddenly on some back road in rural Mississippi.

It would be interesting to come up with a dollar amount of how much change in profit and loss across all U.S. companies Google could effect if its algorithm were changed to maximally disrupt the economy. The trillions that we’ve seen created and lost with recent stock market growth and volatility might easily be matched.

All this suggests to me that antitrust legislation and litigation are in Google’s future. Google’s vulnerability consists in it being too powerful economically and playing things too fast and loose with other people’s intellectual property. FaceBook’s recent problems may be a bellweather of Google’s coming problems.