Google Won't Stop

Thu, Aug 13, 2020. Tags: Tech, Politics.

So I read this blog post, and it’s bothering me. It’s pretty short, so I recommend you read it before continuing with this post.

Done? Alright.

I think that article expresses a generally good opinion in the worst way possible.

It’s true that if Chrome becomes the only browser on the market, it’d lead to a very unhealthy monopoly situation. There’s an analogy to be drawn with Microsoft’s EEE strategy, except that instead of extending open software with proprietary APIs, Google is extending it with so many APIs that no one can ever build anything compatible.

For the web to remain an open and innovative platform, there need to be multiple competing browser engines. The more features Google adds to Chrome, the harder it becomes for Firefox to keep up, and the more impossible it becomes for anyone to build a new browser from scratch.

But this article seems almost allergic to actual solutions. It is intent on blaming all the wrong people without proposing any real answers.

Look at this bit:

Mozilla just fired everyone relevant to focus on crap no one asked for like Pocket, and fad nonsense like a paid VPN service and virtual reality tech.

Of course they did — they had no choice. It takes money to build software. Pocket, even if it is “crap no one asked for,” is an opportunity to serve ads. “Fad nonsense” like paid VPNs actually make quite a bit of money these days. Mozilla makes Firefox, Servo, MDN, and Rust, and does it all for free. I love Mozilla for it, but this article seems to believe that all that is needed for this state of affairs to continue is… what, exactly?

No layoffs or pay cuts at the management level, of course! It’s not like they’re responsible for these problems, it’s not like anyone’s fucking responsible for any of this, it’s not like the very idea of personal responsibility has been forgotten by both executives and engineers, no sir!

“Personal responsibility,” apparently. I totally support pay cuts for executives, but you can’t save 250 jobs like that, and “personal responsibility” alone can’t pay the bills. Not only does appealing to personal responsibility solve nothing, it distracts us from actual solutions by letting us blame individuals for the systemic reasons that our problems exist in the first place.

If we want to protect the public good by keeping Mozilla in the black, we need to stop expecting them to do their work for free while still making money in the market. We need to provide them with government grants. Clearly charitable donations aren’t enough — let’s fund important software the same way we fund important science: with public money.

As for the question of scope creep in browsers, how do we solve that? Google seems content to just keep adding features, even if that’s ultimately bad for the ecosystem. This applies to AMP too. Google bumps AMP websites to the top of its search results regardless of speed. This is anti-competitive behaviour. How does this article propose we stop this?

No one wants AMP. Google knows it, you know it, I know it. If you’re a Google engineer who is still working on AMP, you are a disgrace to your field. Take responsibility for the code you write. This project needs to be dead and buried and the earth above salted, and it needs to happen yesterday.

“Personal responsibility,” again. Let’s just ask all the engineers at Google to stop making AMP. That’s not a solution; we can’t solve problems just by asking everyone to stop doing the thing. What’s next, are we gonna fix global warming by asking everyone working in the fossil fuel sector to quit? Are we gonna end sweatshop labour by asking every Nike employee to resign? At no point in history has social change ever worked this way. This is a non-solution.

If we think AMP is anti-competitive, the answer is anti-trust legislation. Plain and simple. If we want to decouple Chrome from Google’s private interests, the only way to actually do that is to break up Google, separating the Chrome team into its own non-profit org.

Are these good proposals? Maybe. I like them. They’re worth discussing, at least. But they’re better than “enough is enough,” because that’s nothing at all. And they’re infinitely better than this weird “personal responsibility” thing, because that’s the opposite of a solution: It’s something that feels like a solution — something we can waste our time talking about for ages — but something which will never actually solve the problem.

I call for an immediate and indefinite suspension of the addition of new developer-facing APIs to web browsers.

Google does not care what you think. If you want to change their behaviour, you can’t just ask them to do something else. You have to change the system of incentives and barriers which Google operates within, and force them to act differently. By ignoring the political instruments and market forces which Google responds to in favour of shaming individuals into “taking personal responsibility,” you achieve nothing.

Having written all of this, I feel like I may be being too harsh. This article never claimed to have solutions — in fact, it’s only a few paragraphs long. I’ve more than quadrupled its word count in this response. But if all we do is complain about problems, and then complain about how no one’s “taking responsibility,” we never actually fix anything. This article blames individuals instead of systems. It is concerned entirely with symptoms instead of looking for the root cause.

This is a type of thought which I find particularly frustrating, because it points fingers but doesn’t solve problems. We will never stop corporate monopoly power by exercising our “personal responsibility.” Shouting “Google, please stop!” into the void does nothing at all. They will never stop of their own volition. Ask voters to stop them instead.