Tag Archives: virgin digital land Google

For Money and the State: the internet

internet advertising. image from wikipedia

Rarely has a manifesto been so wrong. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, written 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow, a digital civil-libertarian, begins thus: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

At the turn of the century, it seemed as though this techno-Utopian vision of the world could indeed be a reality. It didn’t last… Autocratic governments around the world…have invested in online-surveillance gear. Filtering systems restrict access: to porn in Britain, to Facebook and Google in China, to dissent in Russia.

Competing operating systems and networks offer inducements to keep their users within the fold, consolidating their power. Their algorithms personalise the web so that no two people get the same search results or social media feeds, betraying the idea of a digital commons. Five companies account for nearly two-thirds of revenue from advertising, the dominant business model of the web.

The open internet accounts for barely 20% of the entire web. The rest of it is hidden away in unsearchable “walled gardens” such as Facebook, whose algorithms are opaque, or on the “dark web”, a shady parallel world wide web. Data gathered from the activities of internet users are being concentrated in fewer hands. And big hands they are too. BCG, a consultancy, reckons that the internet will account for 5.3% of GDP of the world’s 20 big economies this year, or $4.2 trillion.

How did this come to pass? The simple reply is that the free, open, democratic internet dreamed up by the optimists of Silicon Valley was never more than a brief interlude. The more nuanced answer is that the open internet never really existed.

[T]e internet, it was developed “by the US military to serve US military purposes”… The decentralised, packet-based system of communication that forms the basis of the internet originated in America’s need to withstand a massive attack on its soil. Even the much-ballyhooed Silicon Valley model of venture capital as a way to place bets on risky new businesses has military origins.

In the 1980s the American military began to lose interest in the internet…. The time had come for the hackers and geeks who had been experimenting with early computers and phone lines.  Today they are the giants. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—together with some telecoms operators—help set policy in Europe and America on everything from privacy rights and copyright law to child protection and national security. As these companies grow more powerful, the state is pushing back…

The other big risk is that the tension between states and companies resolves into a symbiotic relationship. A leaked e-mail shows a Google executive communicating with Hillary Clinton’s state department about an online tool that would be “important in encouraging more [Syrians] to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.”+++ If technology firms with global reach quietly promote the foreign-policy interests of one country, that can only increase suspicion and accelerate the fracturing of the web into regional internets….

Mr Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”.

Excerpts from Evolution of the internet: Growing up, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016

+++The email said Google would be “partnering with Al Jazeera” who would take “primary ownership” of the tool, maintaining it and publicizing it in Syria.  It was eventually published by Al Jazeera in English and Arabic.

Invading from the Air: the virgin digital land

Google Loon Launch event image from wikipedia

Google’s Project Loon is an effort to develop high-altitude balloons that can bring Internet connectivity to remote areas. The technology has been tested over the past couple of years, but not at scale. Rama, a quasi–public company controlled by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya [who runs Silicon Valley venture firm Social Capital] and the Sri Lankan government, aims to do just that. Google sent the first Loon balloon above Sri Lanka in February 2016, and the government says it’s working with the company to blanket the country with coverage from another dozen. …Under a deal Palihapitiya negotiated, Google is leading the Loon launches, development, and maintenance, and Rama will run the software to control access to the balloons’ Internet connections and handle billing. People will still pay local operators for data, and carriers will pay Rama an as-yet-undisclosed fee to help ferry traffic.

The Loon fleet could offer a cheaper alternative to undersea Internet cables, which pass through the regional choke points of Singapore and Hong Kong. Carriers in developing Asian and South American nations pay more than 10 times the bandwidth prices their European and U.S. counterparts do, researcher TeleGeography estimates. (The median wholesale price for a monthly 10-gigabit-per-second connection in Los Angeles or Frankfurt is $1; in Mumbai, it’s $15.) Sri Lanka’s data use is growing 45 percent a year and will likely do so for the next decade, the United Nations estimates.

Excerpts from  A Would Be Wi-Fi Paradise, Bloomberg Business Week, Mar. 27, 2016

Who is Afraid of Google?

image from wikipedia

[Some] worry that Google could prove to be the ultimate digital monopoly. They do not think that its reason for being is primarily online search or the advertising business; they see it as being in the business of mining any and all data it can accumulate for new profit streams. The data hunger such a goal demands is the main reason, they argue, why Google is entering markets as diverse as self-driving cars, smart homes, robotics and health care. “Google is trying to leverage the advantage it has in one area into many others,” says Nathan Newman, a lawyer and technology activist. The idea is that Google could use its assets—its data, its unparalleled ability to exploit those data, its brilliant employees and knack for managing them—to take control of other industries.

For such a data-centric conglomerate to get ever more dominant seems against the flow of history and intuitively unlikely. But intuitive views of the direction of internet competition have been wrong before, as the existence of giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook bears witness. And should it show signs of coming to pass, the current antitrust skirmishes will give way to an epic battle on the scale of the one against Standard Oil. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” said John Sherman, the senator who gave his name to America’s original antitrust law, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” Even one that makes things very, very easy.

Excerpt from Internet monopolies: Everybody wants to rule the world, Economist, Nov. 29, 2014. at 19

The Virgin Digital Land and the Google Monopoly

Online Africa is developing even faster than the new highways of offline Africa. Undersea cables reaching Africa on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts, plus innovative mobile-phone providers, have raised internet speeds and slashed prices. In some African markets you can buy a daily dose of internet on a mobile phone for about the cost of a banana (ie, less than ten American cents). This burgeoning connectivity is making Africa faster, cleverer and more transparent in almost everything that it does.

Google can take a lot of the credit. The American search-and-advertising colossus may even be the single biggest private-sector influence on Africa. It is not just that its internet-search and e-mail are transforming Africa. Take maps. Before Google, ordinary Africans struggled to find maps. Military and civilian mapping offices hoarded rolls of colonial-era relics and sold them at inflated prices. By contrast, Google encourages African developers to layer maps with ever more data. In Kenya 31,000 primary schools and 6,900 secondary schools are marked on Google maps. Satellite views even let users see if the schools have built promised new classrooms or water points. Similar initiatives let voters verify local voting figures at election time. Satellite views of traffic jams have also shamed some African cabinets into spending more on city infrastructure.

Google has also pepped up Africa’s media, enabling Africans to read each other’s newspapers. Google is improving translation software to bring more Africans who speak only local languages online. As well as English, French, Portuguese and Arabic, it offers Zulu, Afrikaans, Amharic and Swahili. Languages like Wolof, Hausa, Tswana and Somali are set to follow.

Faster downloading speeds have helped make Google’s YouTube video-viewing more popular. Young urban Africans organise YouTube parties. The company is also trying to help African governments digitise information and make it freely available to their citizens. Many rulings in the higher courts of Ghana, for instance, are going online.

Yet critics complain that Google is buying up enormous amounts of virgin digital land in Africa at virtually no cost. Within a couple of decades, without the regulatory oversight of the African Union or African governments, they say, Africa’s internet life will be almost entirely in hock to the Google giant. Even the company’s decision to go slow on seeking profits from Africa by offering cheap deals has been attacked by African would-be rivals, which say that such tactics are only extending Google’s unfair advantage.

Google says its recent effort to best a rival South African firm, Mocality, was an embarrassing aberration. Google’s top man in Africa, Joe Mucheru, brushes aside fears of a monopoly. The company’s advertising model, he says, helps African business. “The more Google grows, the more the entire ecosystem grows.” He is especially keen on Google+, a service that seeks to provide an even more useful online community than Facebook

Google in Africa: It’s a hit, Economist, May 12,2012, at 57