Google 'open' memo betrays deep corporate delusion

Even when we're closed, we're open


Google has sent itself a memo as part of an ongoing effort to perpetuate the self-delusion that it's the world's most open company.

Monday afternoon, at the official Google blog, Google vp Jonathan "Perfect Ad" Rosenberg published an email he recently sent to company staffers under the heading "the meaning of open." Like so many others, Google enjoys telling the world how open it is, but Rosenberg believes the company should go a step further. He strives to actually explain what the word means - and to follow that explanation to the letter.

"At Google, we believe that open systems win. They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses. Many companies will claim roughly the same thing since they know that declaring themselves to be open is both good for their brand and completely without risk. After all, in our industry there is no clear definition of what open really means. It is a Rashomon-like term: highly subjective and vitally important," he writes.

"We need to lay out our definition of open in clear terms that we can all understand and support."

Rosenberg truly believes in this mission - so much so that his description of what should be open avoids all those areas where Google is preternaturally closed. In some cases, he rationalizes the omissions. In others, he seems completely oblivious to what's been left out. And though he does say his company can "go farther," he fails to acknowledge that Google's commitment to openness inevitably disappears when it threatens the company's efforts to make lots of money.

The question is whether Rosenberg realizes he's doing so.

Naturally, "Perfect Ad" spends a good portion of his characteristically sprawling email detailing how much code Google has open sourced over the years, calling his company "the largest open source contributor in the world." That may be the truth. But he doesn't address the fact that Google open sources code only when it believes that doing so will help the company's bottom line - or at least not hurt it.

Just like any other public company, really.

He does acknowledge that Google stops short of open sourcing everything. But then, as Google so often does, he rationalizes the fact that the company has no intention of open sourcing the two things - its search and ad platforms - that have turned Google into something very close to an internet gatekeeper.

"While we are committed to opening the code for our developer tools, not all Google products are open source," Rosenberg says. "Our goal is to keep the Internet open, which promotes choice and competition and keeps users and developers from getting locked in. In many cases, most notably our search and ads products, opening up the code would not contribute to these goals and would actually hurt users.

"The search and advertising markets are already highly competitive with very low switching costs, so users and advertisers already have plenty of choice and are not locked in. Not to mention the fact that opening up these systems would allow people to 'game' our algorithms to manipulate search and ads quality rankings, reducing our quality for everyone."

So, even when Google is closed, it's open.

After reading this particular passage, even Cnet thought of Orwell. "Am I the only one that just had Napoleon of Animal Farm flash through their minds while reading that statement?" writes Matt Asay. "Some animals are more equal than others, and some companies know better than others when to keep code closed."

What's more, Rosenberg's people-will-game-us argument doesn't necessarily stand up to scrutiny. With a blog post of his own, SiteAdvisor founder Chris Dixon swiftly counters that oft-repeated Google chestnut with some good old fashioned security know-how. "If Google is really committed to openness, it is [the search algorithms] that they need to open source," Dixon writes.

Jonathan Rosenberg

Jonathan "Perfect Ad" Rosenberg

"The alleged argument against doing so is that search spammers would be able to learn from the algorithm to improve their spamming methods. This form of argument is an old argument in the security community known as 'security through obscurity.' Security through obscurity is a technique generally associated with companies like Microsoft and is generally opposed as ineffective and risky by security experts. When you open source something you give the bad guys more info, but you also enlist an army of good guys to help you fight them."

If Google keeps search closed, it will remain the gatekeeper - whatever else it may open up. "Until Google open sources what really matters - their search ranking algorithm - you should dismiss all their other open-source talk as empty posturing," Dixon says. "And millions of websites will have to continue blindly relying on a small group of anonymous engineers in charge of the secret algorithm that determines their fate."

Unlike, say, Facebook or Yahoo!, Google is also pathologically closed when it comes to the code driving its famous back-end infrastructure. That, in turn, creates some inconvenient "vendor lock-in" atop its so-called development cloud, Google App Engine. And even when it does open source, it can be awfully closed about it.

But the salient point here is that Google is closed on search. Well, except for the other salient point: the Mountain View Chocolate Factory isn't exactly open when it comes to all that user data it's collecting on its famous back-end infrastructure.

Next page: Opaque transparency

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022