• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


EU and Google

Why the European Union's action matters to American higher ed.


April 16, 2015

Because this action will likely stretch out for a long time, this blog post is not intended to be definitive on the subject but an introduction. At first blush, there are three main reasons why the E.U. antitrust action against Google is significant to U.S. higher education.

The first reason is about search. All eyes go to the market; it is not a wonder that Yelp is often cited as an example of what kind of companies suffer under Google’s favoritism for its own products, especially in a market where Google enjoys 90% market share for search and in a political world where anti-trust is more stringently defined than it is in the United States. But higher education suffers as well. Whereas U.S. market dominance is, according to sources, somewhere on average 70%, the challenge is not the competition for the sale of goods and services but the public space that this private company occupies in the minds of all teachers, learners and researchers. 

Google did not invent search; it refined, commercialized and popularized it to a magnitude of extraordinary success. Its ambitions were never modest, but to organize the world’s knowledge. There’s the rub. That’s what higher education does.  And it does so in the name of the pursuit of pure knowledge; some would even be so bold as to say truth. Google does it for material profit. While there are still good public policy arguments in favor of for-profit corporations as drivers of political economy, overtaking not-for-profit higher education’s missions is not one of them. Google acts in both European and U.S. society with so much mind space among consumers that its presence alone beckons regulatory oversight.  Let the Yelp’s of the world fight the good fight. Just let us keep in mind that higher education has a stake.

The second reason is about data. The E.U.’s Statement of Objections is a wake up call to U.S. lawmakers to revise anti-trust from its late 19th century origins in an industrial economy to the current 21st century information economy state.  Privacy issues are a link to that which is anti-competitive about Google's business model and process. This observation is true for consumers, but the education sector has much to crow about given the distinction between the devil’s bargain that the consumer makes with Google when he or she uses any of its applications and higher education’s enterprise contracts (Google Apps for Education) that promise not to commercialize data use. 

More on this subject will be presented on the April 30th, one year anniversary of Google’s announcement that they had (finally upon being exposed by discovery in the Gmail case) turned off commercial search YEARS after they had signed contracts to do exactly that agreeing to act as a school official under the Family Education Rights Privacy Act.  In short, for now, attention to search should not be limited to prioritization of links. It should include scrutiny of how Google misuses data of even its enterprise clients.

Finally, Android. The announcement that the E.U. was not only bringing forth a Statement of Objections, which is the culmination of a long investigation and failed previous attempts at a settlement, but opening another investigation on Google for its Android practices was initially a surprise but after a moment not.  If we cast our minds back to the Microsoft anti-trust case and recall that it was all about the uncompetitive practices of bundling Internet Explorer onto PCs in order to dominate the market, then the bundling of apps on the Android platform is hardly a stretch of the legal imagination.  Which brings us full circle from search through data to Android apps: it is all about the bundling of devices and apps that unfairly and inappropriately dominate not only the market of goods and services but also the market of innovation and thought.  On a practical level, think of Chromebooks in the education sector, a device that bypasses those tricky enterprise contracts. On a theoretical level, think of the deleterious effect all that commercial routing and surveillance has on the intellectual privacy of higher education’s mind space.    


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