Bringing internet access to the world

There was rather a poor article in the Observer today by John Naughton about Google and Facebook’s recent buying sprees. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly wrong with the analysis – it is just that it was lame, uncontentious and old hat.

The main conclusion was that Google and Facebook’s recent purchases of drone companies was driven by a desire to bring the internet to the 5 billion people without proper access and in the process to advance their own businesses and increase their profits. Neither company has made a secret of their ambition to widen access to the internet and it would be extraordinary indeed if they didn’t want to make a profit from the activity.

There was a missed opportunity here as I think there is an interesting story to tell about these acquisitions.

I will concentrate in this post on the drone acquisitions – I will write a further post about the other acquisitions later.

Google’s move into the provision of internet services (as opposed to merely services which run upon it) may actually be quite a bit more calculated than it at first appears to John Naughton.

Aral Balkan, the designer, programmer and entrepreneur,  gave at talk at the RSA on April 10th called “Free is a Lie” where he argued that Google’s business model is “the business model of corporate surveillance”. (The talk will appear here in due course – there is usually a small delay before they are posted. The talk has now been posted here.)

He argued quite persuasively that “free is a concealed barter” and that the “monopoly of the free business model is leading to digital feudalism”. The argument is that Google needs to know everything about you in order to squeeze all the economic value out of your data. This is why they developed Android (which you log into with your Gmail address) and why they have developed services like Google Now, and why Chrome’s features are so much richer if you log in. The provision of internet services is even better as you log into the web with your Gmail address so that everything you do (on whatever browser) is now tracked and usable.

Facebook has the same business model. It tries everything it can to make us default to public so that, again, the economic value can be extracted. The problem is, says Aral “if we make the default public then anything private has the association of guilt about it”.

“The cost of free is our human rights – which is too much to pay.” Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, it is a much more interesting story.

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