is Google a “commons”?

This was a topic of heated debate at the American Library Association meeting that I attended in October. It’s all the more interesting now that Google has promised to help digitize the entire contents of several major research libraries.

The answer to the literal question is “no.” Google cannot be a commons because it is a corporation. A commons belongs to everyone in a community or to no one at all, whereas the ownership of a corporation is limited and proportional to an individual’s financial investment. However, the interesting question is whether the whole web, when navigated using Google’s search engine, is a commons. The web doesn’t belong to anyone–or we could say that everyone owns it. Its elements are privately owned and controlled, but it’s quite easy for anyone to add a new page to the pool. While access to (and use of) some webpages is restricted, most of the web has an open feel, just like a classic physical commons.

But what happens when we use Google to find our way through the web? The Internet itself may be unlimited, but the list of top-10 results for any given Google search is very limited and is under the company’s control. Google uses a proprietary database and search algorithm to generate results. In principle, Google’s management could block you from searching at all, or could promote a favored site to #1 for money–or for totally capricious reasons. The Google search algorithm is secret (necessarily, or else people would manipulate their websites to gain higher ranking). Google sells advertising space for cash.

None of these features sounds compatible with a “commons.” On the other hand, Google has chosen to create a space with many commons-like features. To the best of my knowledge, Google still ranks sites proportionally to the number of links from other sites. A link is a kind of gift or vote. A large number of incoming links does not indicate quality or reliability, but it does indicate popularity within the community of website-owners. Google’s search results mirror that popularity. To be sure, money can buy popularity, yet there are many cheap sites that have become major nodes on the web.

In theory, Google could start charging for placement (not only for the advertisements that appear on the right side of the screen, but also for basic search results). However, that would be a risky move for the company, since its popularity comes from its commons-like feel. Besides, Google’s capacity to destroy the commons does not prove that there is no commons on its site right now. Every commons is subject to destruction and/or control. The Alaska wilderness is a commons (I think), yet the state and federal government could suddenly decide to charge large fees for access. Thus the question is not whether Google must create and preserve a commons, but whether it has done so to date.

Some people feel that corporations are fundamentally incompatible with a commons. They may be attracted to the idea of the commons in the first place because they are hostile to corporate capitalism. It’s worth asking, however, exactly what’s wrong with corporations. Do they promote consumerism? Google is a portal to many political, civic, spiritual, and environmental pursuits as well as e-commerce. Are corporations undemocratic? Google has made money by using a fairly democratic system for ranking its search results. Its system is not perfectly equitable, but neither is any conceivable government. Are corporations greedy? Sometimes private vice brings public benefit.

To me, the best question is: Compared to what? Google has created a tenuous kind of commons, with secret rules and concentrated power. But democratic governments tend to create commons with similar problems. And anarchic commons, such as the high seas, are easily destroyed by individuals’ greed. I’d say that Google is about as good a large-scale commons as we have seen, although we’ll have to keep a close eye on it. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, even in the 21st century.