Sergey Brin talks Google and the thorny issue of walled gardens

Sergey Brin says he’s “more worried than [he has] been in the past” about Internet freedom, from government censorship to anti-piracy efforts to walled gardens. The walled gardens of which he speaks happen to be Google‘s biggest competitors — Apple and Facebook — so his remarks are getting plenty of attention.

In an interview the Guardian published over the weekend, the Google co-founder said he and Larry Page wouldn’t have been able to create what has become the world’s largest search engine in the age of Facebook and apps. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation,” Brin told the Guardian.

Brin’s comments echo those of Google CEO Page, who recently voiced his frustration about lack of access to other social networks’ information. Page told Businessweek that “our friends at Facebook have imported many, many, many Gmail addresses and exported zero addresses out.”

Brin also says “there’s a lot to be lost” from not being able to search the information from other mobile-phone apps. Google Android’s main rival in that area, of course, is Apple and its iOS.

The response so far: Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says “the assumption here is that the only way to search is through Google, and that the ‘open Internet’ is only what Google can index and sell ads against.” And Dave Winer points out what immediately sprang to my mind when I read the Guardian interview: Brin is railing against the very thing his company seems to be trying to become. “Most of its investments are going to create a competitor to Facebook,” Winer writes.

Google’s social-networking push has caused it PR problems, in fact. Its new privacy policy includes trying to corral its many offerings into one platform, causing an outcry. (See Google’s latest controversial move: updating its privacy policy. What will it think of next?) A former Google employee (who now works at Microsoft) wrote in March that social has become “state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+.” (See Ex talk:… going negative on Google+.

If Google had stayed strictly a search engine and hadn’t grown the many tentacles it has now, Brin’s words might be perceived differently. They seem to run counter to what Google itself is trying to achieve. But here’s the thing. He’s right. For all their sweet-smelling convenience, walled gardens place limits on online freedom. They are a problem. It’s unwise to base one’s online life entirely on Facebook, which among other things makes it hard for users to take their own data with them when they leave. Apple iOS users are subject to that company’s idea of apps that are acceptable; iTunes users have to jump through hurdles to move their music elsewhere, just to cite a couple of examples. (Similarly, it’s hard to overlook’s massive and powerful platform. If people order most of their physical goods from Amazon, read all their books on a Kindle, watch their movies via Amazon’s streaming offering, the same risks exist.)

But as Google fights Facebook with Google+ and battles Apple with Android, its grip on its users is tightening as well. The company points out that there are workarounds to the changes it has made recently — use multiple accounts if you don’t want your YouTube and Google Maps activity linked; turn off personalized search if you don’t want it. Still, some might say Google is becoming part of the problem.


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  • RedRat

    In reality ALL governments hate free speech or open expression, including our own. Every business also hates free speech. Try criticizing your friendly corporation and see what happens to your employment prospects. This is part and parcel of being in a society. All societies try to curb expression, at least that is what all leaders try to do. Sure, Google is under attack by governments everywhere. Think we do not do it here in the US, how is that Wikileaks thing working for you.

  • Seth

    One of googles mandate is to not do evil. Apple and Facebook appear to be brutal regimes. I’ve never been impressed with steve jobs… Elegant interface is all he created. It was bill gates who is responsible for enabling widespread acquisition of computers by being smart enough to see that it is about the software. The only way apple and Facebook will maintain there market share is through brutality. Google is the voice of democracy and the open platform. Dump Facebook and apple… Long live google and android!!!

  • Jay L. Gischer

    I really liked the penultimate paragraph. You really seem to get what the problem is, and why and how Google wants to battle it.

    Then you end the piece with “some might say”? Really? Of course some might say that. “Some” includes people like Facebook and Apple.

    It’s fair to point out the counter argument. I could even respect (if not agree with) letting someone like Dave Winer have the last word. But “some might say” is kind of cheesy.

  • Tom

    I think Google realised that they have to adapt as fast as possible to create the same (closed?) environment in order to compete. How far will they are going with this? Will they do the same as facebook and Apple?

  • Walled gardens are happening for understandable reasons. Apple would like you to live in the Apple submarine – all things controlled, supplied and taxed by Apple. And when you are in the Apple world – it all works pretty nicely.

    Not really that different for Facebook or Amazon. Provide it all, control it all and tax it all.

    Google – well they would like it all available to their search engines. And then they would sell more advertising.

    All happening for understandable commercial reasons. Not good for the punter. But then without commercial reasons none of this would exist.