Over the last few days, Google has been targeted by authorities in Europe (namely European Commission and Italian Justice) on topics ranging from responsibility for user-generated content that was infringing privacy and copyright laws to anti-competitive practices in ranking search results.
As I am not a lawyer I will stay away from any opinion about either case, although I personally find the enforcement of carrier responsibility for user content as potentially dangerous for the blossoming of the social use of the Internet. I would also argue that the fact that Google becomes a target is a recognition of how important and influential it has become. It is ironical that when Microsoft was fighting its many battles on both sides of the Atlantic, Google was just the new kid on the blocks and now Microsoft’s voices its support to anti-trust investigations it was a victim of just a few years back.
These cases cast a shadow on how fast and how effectively two of the key trends in government – i.e. open government and cloud computing – will unfold. It is no mystery that Google has been mentioned several times as the “cool” alternative to incumbent, mostly on-premise vendors (including Microsoft) and often pointed at as a platform for innovation. Vivek Kundra, the US Federal CIO, has been a vocal supporter of Google since his times as CTO in DC, and Google has been quite instrumental in shaping Obama’s IT policies as part of the transition team. The city and county of LA have caused waves across government organizations and the IT industry with their decision of moving to Gmail and Google Apps. Most statistics show that people access to government information and services much more through Google search than through any government portal.
In a nutshell Google is seen by many as exemplary of the alternative to traditional government approaches to sourcing, collaboration, electronic access. They are in the same league as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube (of course) when it comes to the social effect of the Internet. User generated content as well as consumer platforms are key factors to achieve greater citizen engagement and many commentators – including me – highlight the importance for citizens to decide where, when and how to come together around some content that they generate and feel strongly about.
What if Google and other players in the consumer social platform space were held responsible for the content they host? Could this cripple the apparently unstoppable trend toward socialization? Would they be forced to make users pay or enter very restrictive terms and conditions? And would such conditions create a further divide amongst those who can afford (or have a strong purpose for using) social platforms, and the casual users, who are the silent majority that is coming out on social networks today and smarter governments are trying to reach out to.through those networks?
Also, as IT organizations in all tiers of government look for more flexible and less expensive ways to source their applications and data, could the mounting calls for privacy infringements create further resistance against the adoption of cloud computing? As both Google and Microsoft develop offerings that meet government security requirements, new barriers could emerge that slow down the possible migrations that the LA case seemed to have triggered. Ironically, this is an area where taking archrival Google’s side could be a sensible choice for Microsoft.
Luckily enough for both, risks seem to be limited to outside the US. Those who follow the debates on cloud computing know that there is nothing really new here. In fact Microsoft’s and Google’s announcements about supporting a “government cloud” are limited to the US soil, and clients in other jurisdictions already have strong reservations about cloud offerings from companies that are heavily investing on government clouds in one jurisdiction.
In any case it is wise to start exploring alternative scenarios where existing and evolving privacy regulations as well as different ways to enforce them may create obstacles to the otherwise unstoppable growth of social networks and user-generated content as well as to the move of government IT workloads and data toward the cloud.