Blazing a path on machine learning and privacy, Google risks becoming “Uber for lawsuits”

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When taxi-like service Uber (order a car instantly from your smartphone) first became successful, it created a trend for copy cats. These companies were marketed and mocked as “Uber for X“, e.g., Uber for flowers, Uber for shopping, Uber for laundry, Uber for pizza. You get the idea. But Uber’s explosive growth had another side. The company fought tooth and nail, lawsuit by lawsuit, against entrenched taxi interests to expand. And as Google unleashes the full potential of machine learning (especially talking computers), it risks a similar battle on privacy, becoming an “Uber for lawsuits.” I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but as an aside. It’s worth exploring in more depth.

Though Google completely dominates web search, revenue growth has flattened. The next obvious place for them to grow is owning machine learning and in particular voice interaction. From my Beyond Peak Google post:

If Google owns the voice interaction channel to the internet, and can do branded “native ads” whenever someone talks into their phone or watch, then Peak Google is solved. Google will be launched into the next wave without being eclipsed. Billions are (potentially) at stake. Where’s the closest restaurant I’ll enjoy? What’s the best toothpaste to buy? How much are tickets to the game? What apartment can I afford to rent? What kind of car should I buy? Who should I marry?  Except for that last question, I’m sure Google will eventually be capable and quite happy to answer. With proper brand product placement of course. And a small finder’s fee owed by the end vendor for any purchase. As Google becomes the front end to a potentially huge new voice interaction distribution channel, they’ll take their cut.

Google is already facing European Union lawsuits around it’s control of web search for preferentially steering commerce to its own shopping platform. And as noted on re/code, Google, like other social networks, is working on putting “Buy” buttons directly on their platform. So even without taking things to the next level with voice, Google already faces legal challenges.

In fact Charles Arthur excerpted some of his excellent book “Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet” on his Overspill site to suggest a possible parallel between Google’s current troubles to those of Microsoft during its antitrust trial a decade and a half ago.

From Charles Arthur’s excerpt on that trial:

The trial, and especially the testimony and press coverage, had an enormous effect on the internal culture of Microsoft. The staff didn’t stop thinking they were the best programmers in the world. But quite suddenly they couldn’t attract the rest of the best programmers in the world…..[T]here was also the feeling that to work for Microsoft was to compromise your ethics.

Hence at the 1999 Microsoft annual retreat people got distracted from discussing product roadmap plans:

The attendee says: “We said ‘no, we don’t want to discuss that [roadmap], because we’re in a crisis here and we need to address what we stand for as a company’… We’ve been called evil; most of us with outside friends and family are being questioned by them, asked why we’re working for Microsoft if it’s an evil company.”

And so

“It had a big impact, and even a decade later it was still having an impact,” says Mary Jo Foley, a journalist who has followed Microsoft for years. “When they think about adding new features to different products or how they make sure their products work together, I think in the back of their minds is always this lingering kind of thought or checklist, like: ‘if we do that, are we going to get sued by so and so for antitrust?’ ‘Are we going to get sued by so?’ And so or so and so.” When any feature was being thought about, that question kept coming up: will it break the antitrust ruling? “I think it has almost had a chilling effect on the way they do product development,” Foley suggests.

Of course Microsoft continued and continues to be quite successful. Their revenue tripled in the decade following the lawsuit. But I have no doubt Mary Jo Foley and Charles Arthur are correct about the long term impact. It’s hard to recruit new stars to your company when your friends and family suspect you’re evil.

We are only just now entering the machine learning era in earnest. So it’s unclear whether Google will be able to rise to dominance in machine learning/voice interaction the way it has in web search. History can suggest, but technology never plays out quite the same way twice. Things are different each time round. The scale of today’s internet dwarfs what we had back in 2000, and in particular Apple’s domination of the premium end of the smartphone market creates a very different dynamic. And that’s where Apple’s recent and (in my view) somewhat over the top messaging on privacy comes into focus. From my recent post:

It’s hard to be certain of Apple’s motivation here. It’s likely some mix of being overly creeped out by machine learning, putting their relative backwardness in cloud and machine learning in the best light, having some real and serious moral concerns about privacy, plus some cynical distancing from Google. The latter since they know Google will be the one to bear the brunt of the lawsuits and tech regulations around privacy as machine learning explodes. And then Apple can follow serenely behind in their wake.

Apple may be playing chess on privacy while the rest of us are playing checkers. In quoting the above paragraph at his Overspill site, Charles Arthur commented “The point about lawsuits and regulation is one I hadn’t seen raised before. But once it’s said, it feels inevitable.” Indeed.

A final parallel to Uber is in order here. While Uber continues to ruthlessly battle lawsuits, they also have history on their side. It’s the future. Way better than taxis. I love using Uber. So if Google becomes an “Uber for lawsuits” that’s not necessarily a long term bad thing for the company. Somebody has to blaze a path on machine learning and privacy. And for better or worse Google is the one most likely one to do so. For Google, and Apple as well (despite Apple’s privacy messaging), machine learning and voice interaction will provide unprecedented assistance to our lives. It’s just that doing this requires computers to know far more about us than seems comfortable today. We shouldn’t be surprised to see what’s considered acceptable in these privacy/machine learning trade-offs to get settled by lawsuits, and ultimately become regulated.

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APPENDIX – LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE

My set of recent posts on AI, machine learning, ads, privacy, Apple and Google:

From Charles Arthur:

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