By Heather Whitney – Edited by Esther Kang
On June 28th, Google launched Google+, what appears to be its first major attempt to combat Facebook in the social networking space. While it has been said that Google+ shares more than a little in common with Facebook’s UI, from a policy perspective Google+ has attempted to distinguish itself from Facebook on two main fronts: first, more granular user control of content sharing (i.e. privacy), and second, increased data portability, giving users the ability to easily take their data out of Google+ and go elsewhere. While the introduction of a feasible Facebook competitor has been hailed as a win for users, the possibility of robust competition, resulting in innovation and user-sensitivity, will remain out of reach until users, and not the dominant social networking site, have primary control over their data. In other words, although Google+ has raised the user control and privacy ante, online social networking will never reach its full potential until the costs of switching social networks are drastically lowered.
This article will touch on a few Google+ highlights; for a detailed comparison between Google+ and Facebook, see this Digital Trends piece.
Google+ allows users to assign their contacts to different “circles” and then choose on an individual-piece-of-content (e.g. a photo album or status update) basis which circles will have access to that piece of content. The idea behind circles is simple: an on-off share-or-don’t-share switch does not properly capture the complex social relationships that users have. As Google explained in its introductory blog post, “Not all relationships are created equal. So in life we share one thing with college buddies, another with parents, and almost nothing with our boss. The problem is that today’s online services turn friendship into fast food—wrapping everyone in “friend” paper—and sharing really suffers.” With circles, over-sharing content, for example,feeling forced to make content public or accessible to all “friends”, is much easier to avoid.
Facebook, while also allowing users to exclude both discreet individuals and user-created lists of contacts on an individual-piece-of-content basis, requires users to go through a few more clicks to do so. And, as TechCrunch reports, Mark Zuckerberg has himself conceded that Facebook lists just have not taken off. In part, the trouble with lists may be that the feature was tacked on to Facebook over time, so list creation after the fact was too burdensome. Perhaps users just got worn down and, with no other realistic social networking alternative, learned to live with a bit of over (or under) sharing. In contrast, the circles feature forms the core of Google+. And, perhaps, the idea that in Google+ a user creates a piece of content and then actively chooses who to share with is a more intuitive experience than actively choosing who to exclude, as is the case with Facebook. Either way, Google+ shows users that choosing who to share with can be easier and more granular; as a result, it is likely that Facebook will also do more in this space. A positive result all around.
While privacy is increasingly becoming a factor in antitrust analysis, as InsidePrivacy reports, the introduction of Google+, and more specifically Facebook’s response to users trying to export their contact lists for use in Google+ by blocking that application, highlights a second, traditionally anticompetitive, issue – when a company locks users in by dramatically increasing the user-side costs to switching providers, users are forced to suffer with a potentially lesser product, and the chance for meaningful innovation is greatly diminished. Google has invested significant energy into making data transportation as easy as possible for users. In fact, Google’s Data Liberation Blog has listed that as their mission. Facebook, as we have seen, is less open to the idea.
Google is currently under not only an FTC competition investigation into its search and advertising practices, as The Los Angeles Times reports, and a European Commission antitrust inquiry, as The Huffington Post reports, but according to The Wall Street Journal, it will also have its former CEO, Eric Schmidt, testify before the Senate subcommittee on antitrust in September. Thus, it virtually goes without saying that the last thing Google wants is to create a product where users are “locked in”. But regardless of Google’s motives, users benefit from services lowering the costs associated with changing providers; it creates opportunities for the real competition that has been lacking in the online social networking space for some time. And, as a result of that competition, better user-centric services are bound to result.
However, two main problems remain. First, in the social networking world it is clear that with Facebook having over 750 million users, real competition requires a non-trivial number of people actually giving competitors a chance. And, as many have said, the likelihood of enough people transplanting their social identities over to Google+ seems slight. Thus, even if Google+ is a better product – and a product where users can easily take their data and move on to the next bigger and better thing whenever it comes along – its chances of flourishing are still very much in question. But this is just a first, more short term, problem; the second problem is more systemic.
Even assuming that users give up on Facebook, which is closed, and move on to Google+, which is more open, the fact remains that a financially interested party is the holder and gatekeeper of the only currency with which users can express their discontent – their personal data. So, while much of the focus has been on the benefits and drawbacks of Google+ features versus those of Facebook, perhaps the truly revolutionary idea that social networking site users should be contemplating is whether or not they want one company holding all of that data at all. And this problem is not limited to social networking sites. Take the recent uproar about Netflix’s dramatic 60 percent price increase. Users are outraged not only because they don’t like the price increase (who would?) but because they realize that not only have they nowhere else to go, but even if they did, they have already invested hundreds of hours customizing Netflix. By giving a walled garden like Netflix an incredible amount of personal data about the sort of movies they like the user makes Netflix stronger and the user weaker. In other words, the product is better for the user in the short term, but it makes them much more vulnerable, and competition much less robust, in the future. Competitors then lack the rich data set Netflix has at its fingers and, because the cost of moving over and starting to rate movies again from scratch is a high price to pay for what might be a few bucks a month, even if a better service was out there users will feel already invested in Netflix. Once again, users give data to a company, the company gets better, but then when the company does something consumers don’t like, users are that much less powerful to do something about it.
One solution to this problem has come up in a newly created joint enterprise between Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School entitled, “Ideas for a Better Internet.” Like most good ideas, this one is relatively simple: users have access to a neutral central online platform that acts as a universal personal data dashboard. As a result, the choice of what to share and on what platform is entirely in the hands of users. In essence, users are licensing their data to a certain site. If this happens, smaller and more innovative services that rely on personal data for their value will have a more realistic chance to compete, as sharing on their site would be as simple as an additional click or two. Then, even if Google+ overtakes Facebook in the same way that Facebook overtook MySpace and MySpace to Friendster, when the next big thing comes, users will be ready (and free) to +1 for it.
Heather Whitney is a 2L at Harvard Law School.