"Everybody loves the BBC and it doesn't cost anything, Murdoch should learn a thing or two." - Comment by reader 'peter 3' at The Register
Everyone's missed the clever part of Rupert Murdoch's broadside against Google last week. Murdoch said he'd block Google from spidering his websites' content, and may use litigation against public broadcasters such as the BBC, who use material spawned in his papers. The conventional wisdom from web gurus was that he was off his rocker, and his comments were the last gasp of a Luddite. And that shows you what the conventional wisdom of web pundits is worth.
What Murdoch has done is say the unspeakable. He's offered a roadmap for taming Google - and a re-ordering of everything we take for granted about the web today. He can't do so alone, which is why his real audience included media and entertainment executives who lack the courage to think such heresies. But he invited the prospect that without its expensively-produced material, Google stops being the omnivorous destroyer of their livelihoods they suppose it is today. And this, in turn, means Google's own investment decisions today may be horribly misplaced.
But let's wind back a moment - you need to see the contours of the set in this particular drama.
Although they'd never admit it, Rupert Murdoch and Google have one thing in common: both benefit from their powers being exaggerated to almost mythic proportions. Google is supposedly the destroyer of all businesses in advertising, media and entertainment who dare defy its rules. It has the wisdom of a prophet - it's a modern Jesus, the loopier web evangelists want us to believe.
Similarly Murdochs is an omniscient Bond villain who apparently has Governments in his pocket, and has the power to crush the tiny embattled public sector. (Jonathan Pryce played a media tycoon called Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies.) The name "Murdoch" is enough to provoke a Five Minute Hate in any polite North London media circles.
Both live up to their reputations, too, because doing business is easier that way.
In fact they're very mortal indeed; both "empires" are somewhat less than imperial - they're uniquely vulnerable, in their respective ways. Murdoch operates in a fiercely competitive field, seeing production and distribution costs remain high but ad rates fall, and he's at the mercy of politically motivated regulators. The recommendation to strip Sky of English cricket broadcast rights - which it won fairly at auction - and hand it to the Beeb, which didn't even bid, is a sharp reminder of how business works at the whim of politicians.
For its part, Google is (still) a one-trick pony, and regular readers of our investigations into its "black box" auction system know how vulnerable that is - both to gaming, and regulatory intervention. Google is permitted to set the price of doing business on the internet, a state of affairs that cannot last indefinitely.
What Murdoch did last week is invite us to contemplate Google's mortality. It's quite simple.
If Murdoch blocked Google's spiders, and others followed suit, then the value of Google search index would fall dramatically. It wouldn't go away, but a company whose mission is to "organise the world's information" has a unique problem. If it can't access that information, then the mission statement will never be fulfilled.
What Google would be left with is an apparatus - created at great expense - for collecting much of the world's garbage. Google becomes the world's most stupid tape recorder - collecting all the dross that was never intended to be recorded - drivel, overheard. Much of this is spam, created by bots; much of the rest is chatter.