24 February 2010

"Google will not survive* "

" *in its current form"

I have been speaking publicly about my "Internet Borders" thesis since the summer of 2008. Starting in 2009, I added a concluding slide to my presentation which said, in total,

   Google will not survive*
         *in its current form

When delegates ask me about this prediction, I have explained that it is my opinion that Google's current operating structure will not be able to survive the increasing stresses of Internet de-globalization. Google's basic problem is that its business consists of operating a single massive database of, well, EVERYTHING.

If you want to know anything, then ask Google. Google itself tries valiantly to "do no harm" as they interpret this. So when I ask Google questions using their public interface Google places limits on what I can learn. But sometimes governments of various description ask deeper and more intrusive questions than Google wants to answer. Other times, Google is criticized by governments for answering too many questions and giving up too much information.

This creates a huge regulatory "sheering" force where Google is increasingly caught between conflicting laws and regulations imposed by different national governments.

The most obvious and most public example of this conflict arose when the government of China demanded that Google answer a number of questions about people who are "of interest" to the Chinese government. Apparently in an effort to comply with Chinese law (or at the very least in an effort to comply with Chinese regulatory pressure), Google disclosed some of this information. The backlash came when the US Government (or more accurately the US Congress) found out about this disclosure and complained to Google about taking actions which they believe are detrimental to the cause of democracy generally: a key component of US foreign policy.

Now we see a decision where Italian authorities have prosecuted Google executives in Italian courts for allegedly violating Italian law. The BBC report is here. Clearly Google and its executives are pretty angry at the result. Also clearly, the Italian authorities are angry as a result of what they perceive to be a violation of the rights of its citizens.

From the perspective of international law, Italy is simply protecting Italian sovereignty. China is protecting Chinese sovereignty. And the US? Well, certainly the Congressional hearings with Google were an attempt to remind Google that the US has sovereign interests here as well.

I believe that we are fast approaching a day when nobody will be able to run a single global database of EVERYTHING. I believe that instead will see the increasing de-globalization of such databases and search services. Some countries will undoubtedly demand access to search records of individuals who appear to be accessing such data from within their borders. Some countries will undoubtedly demand access to search records of any person anywhere who appears to be making searches that could impact their national security interests. Something's got to give.

In short, it is my opinion that Google will not survive (in its current form). Don't get me wrong: I believe that Google has the potential for a brilliant (and profitable) future. If Google is not already planning a major corporate restructuring that takes account of this brave new de-globalized world, then somebody at Board level should be ordering a major strategic re-think. There are a number of multinational enterprises who navigate successfully the sheering forces of conflicting laws and regulations that apply to their business. But in order to achieve that future Google needs to start thinking now about how to restructure their international corporate holdings, and how to re-architect their database service (or more accurately, their multiple database services).