When Google Books was launched in 2004, there seemed little to object to. Google, in partnership with the largest university libraries in the world, would scan millions of books and create an invaluable online research tool. Book scanning en masse had been tried before, mostly by the universities themselves, but it is an expensive process that only a large company like Google can afford — 10 million books later, Google has spent more than $100 million.
As Google and the World Brain, a documentary by Ben Lewis broadcast on BBC4 last month, explained, soon it wasn’t just long-forgotten academic works being scanned but books still in copyright too. Though these were not made freely available, users could search a book and were given snippets of text to read. To claim, as Google does, that its scanning constitutes a “fair dealing” exemption to copyright restrictions requires some imaginative legal reasoning; in most jurisdictions, the exemption is designed to cover the copying of works for research, criticism and private study. Google’s lawyers tend to settle claims brought by authors and publishers out of court. The largest of those payouts came after a class action claim led by the US Authors’ Guild that was settled in 2008 when Google agreed to pay the aggrieved authors $125 million.
It’s not just building their library that Google does without regard for the rights of others. To amass the millions of photographs needed for another of its grand projects, Streetview, Google sent cars with rooftop cameras around the cities of the world. It later emerged that the cars were also fitted with antennae that collected data including email correspondence and search histories from any unprotected wireless network it passed. This from a company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil”. It was fined $7 million for the practice in the US last month.
In many ways Google is just an old-fashioned monopolist: it can get away with a lot of what it does because of the size of its market share. But it also thrives in an intellectual climate that unquestioningly celebrates its actions. When the company’s chairman Eric Schmidt says, “If we get [web technology] right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems,” Silicon Valley applauds, oblivious to how dangerous utopian thoughts like that can be.
One person not clapping is Evgeny Morozov, whose new book, To Save Everything Click Here: Technology Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist (Allen Lane, £20), questions the supposed verities of the web: radical transparency, collaboration, crowd-sourcing and so on. Morozov is hardly a silver-tongued polemicist. To Save Everything, Click Here grinds forward, weighed down by a bad sense of humour and dozens of -isms — “technoescapism” and “epochalism” are two of his ugliest creations. But his book is a reminder that it’s reasonable to think twice when the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, asks you to share your private life online and be part of his mission “to make the world more open and connected”.