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Congooglerate, Inc.

Miguel Helft at the NYT asks “Is Google a Media Company?” I’d thought an earlier Times article answered the question when it quoted a Google exec saying “We feel that we have recreated the mass media.” But the big question here is whether the internet giant is a fair and open conduit for all content, or may end up prioritizing items it sponsors.

My sense is that Google is going to want to have it both ways here, and will end up like a Comcast or Time Warner Cable–owning both the essential “tubes” (or, in Google’s case, the “map”) of the internet, and having an interest in some mapped entities. The legal question then becomes whether some type of “access” to such a dominant entity is necessary.

The immediate concern that drives Helft’s article is the worry that Google’s commercial version of Wikipedia/Yahoo Answers (Knol) will be favored in search rankings. A Google spokesman says any high-ranked Knol page has “earned its position,” but broader worries linger:

Google has long insisted that it has no plans to own or create content, and that it is a friend, not a foe, of media companies. . . . “Google can say they are not in the content business, but if they are paying people and distributing and archiving their work, it is getting harder to make that case,” said Jason Calacanis, the chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine that relies on editors to create pages on a variety of subjects. “They are competing for talent, for advertisers and for users” with content sites, he said.

But doesn’t Google have a corporate culture of fairness? What about its long-touted advocacy for net neutrality? Just as Google is afraid of having big carriers like cable companies and telco’s deprioritize its content, won’t it apply those same principles to its own business?

Well, I expect that as Google itself gets into the business of providing internet access, those commitments will fade. Consider this report by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld on its investment in a new 4G network:

Google and Comcast [have] made “strategic investments” of $500 million and $1.05 billion, respectively, in Clearwire, which is combining its so-called WiMax assets with those of Sprint. For its money, Google gets one-click access to its mobile search service on “select new devices” from Sprint. Sprint’s customers also will have “easier access” to Google Maps, YouTube videos and other Google services as the companies announced in May. Indeed, Google appears to be paying for preferential placement on 4G phones. . . .

Google says the network is open and Clearwire will only “engage in reasonable and competitively-neutral network management.” But, from a practical standpoint, is it “competitively-neutral” if the managers of the network favor one of their partners to be the door that customers open to enter the Internet?

Of course, if people flock to Clearwire and other Google offerings, it’s hard to argue with success. But how do we know how successful a given web entity is? Services like ComScore have started to answer such questions concretely–though they’ve been contested. Now Google itself is getting into the business:

Suddenly having Google as a competitor could quickly spell death for a smaller firm. When the search giant last week unveiled a tool that measures audiences for various Web sites, Reston-based ComScore saw its stock drop by 23 percent in one day. . . .

ComScore has gone through a rigorous audit by the Media Rating Council, an industry group that reviews major audience counters for a variety of media. It’s not clear whether Google will also undergo the audit process, nor is it clear how Google is collecting its data, said Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. The company may be using its own information gathered by its widely distributed toolbar, searches and other products, as well as data from Internet service providers, he said. “This is likely to create quality of data and privacy issues,” he wrote in a note to investors.

So now we can better understand why, in 2006, a Google executive was at pains to deny they are actually in the business of producing content:

[Reporter Richard Siklos stated that] [W]hen I spoke to David Eun, Google’s vice president for content partnerships, he took umbrage with the media designation. He noted that Google did not create or own content — in his mind, part of the definition of a media company. Rather, he said, Google is a technology company: “I would say we’re a conduit connecting our users with content and advertisers.”

The big questions here, though, are not definitional, or economic, but cultural. They include justified worry about the independence of various parts of the internet ecosystem–the tools we use to find information, reports on how trafficked certain sites are, and the providers of information itself. In its public advocacy for network neutrality, Google has been among the internet visionaries who realized that vertical integration of content and conduit undermines not only economic competition, but also a free cultural and political life. The question now is whether these corporate values can survive the company’s decision to get into the business of providing internet access, and measuring its own (as well as other sites’) traffic. One guide here for Google-watchers may be “trust but verify“–a tall order for a company so enamored of trade secrecy.

Note: This is cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.