What the web is saying about Sergey Brin and openness

Sergey Brin’s not a happy man. Talking about the threats to the open web, the Google co-founder (s GOOG) seems to be in defensive mood — taking shots at everyone from China and Saudi Arabia to the entertainment industry to Facebook and Apple (s AAPL).
In an interview with The Guardian (see disclosure below) Brin spoke about “very powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all sides, and around the world.”

“I am more worried than I have been in the past,” he said. “It’s scary.” […]
“You have to play by [Facebook’s] rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

The interview, intended to kickstart a series of stories on the fight between the open internet and online censorship, has got a lot of attention — but it’s also left plenty of questions hanging. For example, it sidesteps some of the trickier topics Google faces right now, such as its controversial privacy policies, and accusations of anti-competitive behavior.
But it has certainly sparked a storm of response all over the web. Some think he’s absolutely right: others think Google’s position is driven by commercial imperatives.
So, is he right?
The Register chooses to focus on Brin’s tacit admission that Google made a mistake in evaluating China’s ability to censor and control the internet.

While Google still has a presence in China and has been adding to its team of engineers in the country, it has remained critical of the government’s hardline stance on web censorship ever since its high profile decision to relocate its search business to Hong Kong in early 2010. As if to validate Brin’s words, Hu Jintao’s government has continued with a vengeance its unprecedented online crack down designed to quell any potential social disorder, or even worse, political protest, ahead of the Party’s leadership handover next year.

But most focus on his broadside at rivals. Dave Winer takes Brin to task for talking the talk on openness, but not walking the walk. The suggestion is that Google is fine when information is open to Google.

Similarly, LA designer Bobby Solomon calls the interview “a joke” for similar reasons.


Web critic Andrew Keen says Brin is right, but also conflicted.

And Gizmodo questions whether Brin is the right man to deliver this sermon:

“It’s hard to tell if this is true concern over the freedom of the internet or whether—as the cynics among you may leap to suggest—it’s a case of hitting out at an extremely successful competitor.”

Much sentiment seems to be summed up by journalist Peter Bright, who sees that Google has more in common with its rivals than it may like to think.

It’s worth pointing out here that this is an interview with Brin and not Larry Page, who is now the company’s CEO. Of course Brin still has a vast say in what happens, but he has long been the more ideological member of the Google troikia — the chief opponent, for example, of the company’s incursion into China.
But is the biggest problem with his comments the ideological sleight of hand that ends up conflating the commercial and the political?
Over at Wired, Tim Carmody suspects so.

“There’s a profound audacity in Brin bundling internet censorship in regimes like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which restrict user access to the web, with Facebook and Apple’s platforms, which restrict Google’s.
There may be a continuum of control and closure of the internet that connects repressive governments at one end and overbearing corporations at the other. The fight over the SOPA/PIPA legislation, where entertainment and technology companies, along with their users, fought it out in the halls of Congress, doubtlessly lies somewhere in between.
But Google is likewise doubtlessly a part of that continuum, not apart from it.”