A professor of computer science at Stanford, John Ousterhout, is quoted on the official Google blog offering his thoughts after a recent Google faculty retreat:
If we want to maintain the leadership position of the U.S., we must find ways to make as much information as possible freely available. There will always be vested commercial interests that want to restrict access to information, but we must fight these interests. The overall benefit to society of publishing information outweighs the benefit to individual companies from restricting it.
It's a wonderful statement because of the clarity and openness with which it calls for putting the needs of "the U.S." and "society" over "individual companies." In a sense it's reminiscent of how President Obama asked the Chrysler bondholders to sacrifice their individual rights in favor of the needs of America to have a healthy auto industry. It's a slippery slope, though. If national interests trump corporate interests, do global interests trump national interests? What if the United Nations showed up and said, "There will always be vested national interests that want to restrict access to information, but we must fight these interests. The overall benefit to global society of publishing information outweighs the benefit to individual nations from restricting it"?
And just what constitutes "information"? Does it include the secret recipe for Coca-Cola? Does it include Google's own precious and confidential search algorithm? Some information may be created, stored, or aggregated by companies hoping to profit by doing so. Society may benefit from the free flow of information, but there is also a societal benefit generated by individuals and companies knowing that they have the right to choose how to price and distribute the information they create or gather. If society deprives companies of that freedom to price and control the distribution of information, the consequence may be that less information becomes available. Professor Ousterhout seems to gloss over the fact that Google itself is a commercial interest that has benefited greatly from making information available freely. Its investors may be motivated in part by a desire to maintain the leadership position of the U.S. and benefit society, but they are also motivated by a desire to profit. Google may want to be careful with making this argument that "the U.S." and "society" should take precedence over "vested commercial interests," because it is the same argument that federal anti-trust prosecutors are going to invoke when they go after Google. Once that happens, Google may find itself arguing that Professor Ousterhout's dichotomy between the interests of society and individual companies is a false one, and that leaving choices about pricing and distribution in the hands of individual companies is actually the system that, in the end, works best for both America and society overall.