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Google's Software Principles: How Broadly Shall We Read Them?

By - May 20, 2004

principlesI’m late to this game, which means I get to play Monday morning quarterback. As most of you probably know by now, Google has posted a set of principles for software applications here. The title is interesting: “Feedback requested: A proposal to help fight deceptive Internet software.”

The company asks you send feedback to an email account. There is a cross post on the Google blog, but comments are not turned on. (Imagine the trolls and spamming they’d have to fight if they did enable comments, sigh, too bad…)

The Slashdot hive mind seems to generally approve of this move. Elsewhere, comment has been mainly along the lines of “well done.” Another swish for Google in the White Hat playoffs. And I agree. The principles are very clear, I concur with them on first read. Users have the right to know what software is on their computers, what role it plays in their computing ecosystem, how to get rid of it if they want to, and if and when their experience is being manipulated. All that is good and true.

A secondary line of comments note that these principles may well be covering fire for the introduction of what Markoff reported to be “Puffin,” a PC search application expected shortly from Google. Others have noted that they are a shot across Microsoft’s bow, and again I concur. But they are also a shot across any number of other players’ bows, in this increasingly complicated landscape where partners and customers can also be competitors. If Google were to be truly audacious, these principles just might be a way of undermining competitive ad networks such as Yahoo, Claria, and others.

Why? First, they win by comparison. Google is in the advertising business, and by taking the high road (as they always have in the past), they are laying groundwork for branding any number of competitors as black hats. Think of Yahoo’s paid inclusion program. It doesn’t take much to lay these principles against that practice, and draw a comparison – Yahoo doesn’t tell you which listings you see are paid, and which are organic. That violates the principle’s spirit, if not its letter.

Or take Microsoft’s bundling of what might otherwise be free standing web applications: if consumers can’t “unbundle” or delete those applications, that also might be seen as violating the principles. Sure, the context is different, but high ground is high ground.

But the real juice is in the last section of the new principles, called “Keeping Good Company.” It basically says: “We will not partner with anyone who violates these principles, and you shouldn’t either.” The logic folds upon itself: If you partner with those who violate these principles, you yourself violate them, and we will not partner with you. Now that can get quite interesting.

This is why I can’t help but feeling that something else is up here. This sentence was put in italics, and emphasized by Google (under the “Keeping Good Company” section):

Application providers should not allow their products to be bundled with applications that do not meet these guidelines.

It continues (itals mine):

…Getting paid to distribute, or paying money to be distributed with undesirable software enables more undesirable software. Responsible software makers and advertisers can work to prevent such distribution by avoiding these types of business relationships, even if they are through intermediaries…..We believe that it is in our users’ and the industry’s interest to work to eliminate this problem. For this reason, we will strive to distribute our software only in bundles where all applications meet the above guidelines, and we think users will benefit if others in our industry do the same.

Google partners with a lot of folks, and while I can’t put my finger on it, something tells me that this announcement is putting some of those partners on notice in a more broad fashion. After all, what *is* a partner? Someone who distributes Google’s services? Amazon, Ask, AOL, About…all partners. Earthlink, BellSouth, the New York Times…the list goes on and on. And most if not all of the ecommerce world uses intermediaries who bundle software with Kazaa like companies. But what if it’s also folks who advertise *with* Google? Now that would be interesting. Might Google refuse business from someone who also buys ads on Claria, or paid inclusion on Yahoo? No way, you might say. But then again…

Regardless, I imagine these principles have anyone who has a relationship with Google scurrying to their lawyer’s offices, reviewing their own practices, and the practices of their partners, to see if they are violating this new set of terms. (It should be noted that these principles are labeled as “Proposed,” so they can be amended should business partners come up with reasonable objections. But I have pretty good sources telling me Google has very carefully considered the document. It’s not a beta.)

Also not clear are how some other key terms should be read. In the world of the internet, for example, what’s a bundle, and what is “distribution”? Is it just downloaded software? Applications in a box at Circuit City? Co-managed web applications bundled in one place on one site? An ongoing business relationship with AdSense or Overture or Claria?

Similarly, what is meant by “applications”? Just standalone stuff like Toolbar, Deskbar, and the rumored Puffin? Or might this extend to web applications like search and AdSense?

I think it is in fact meant to be read broadly, because the document has this disclaimer at the top:

These guidelines are, by necessity, broad. Software creation and distribution are complex and the technology is continuously evolving. As a result, some useful applications may not comply entirely with these principles and some deceptive practices may not be addressed here. This document is only a start, and focuses on the areas of Internet software and advertising. These guidelines need to be continually updated to keep pace with ever-changing technology.

I wish I could at once see 64 moves down the chessboard in all directions, and predict what the implications might be if these principles were interpreted more broadly. No matter what, many in the industry *will* read these broadly, if only implicitly. The ecology will shift. Google is throwing some weight around here, to good ends, but also to its own. Worth watching. What do you all think?


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10 thoughts on “Google's Software Principles: How Broadly Shall We Read Them?

  1. Rob Leathern says:

    Looking at the top downloads at download.com is always interesting – typically two-thirds are adware/spyware-bundling music/video download programs, the other third are spyware removers. I wrote about this three years ago, coining these types of programs “sneakyware”. Claria is actually one of the better ones in terms of making it clear they’re providing ads to you, there are many far-less scrupulous players out there. The main point is that these companies are often in the same business as Google – they are context providers: they watch a user’s surfing behavior or see her typing in keywords and try to match that behavior (if they’re smart) with an advertiser. Claria’s ads are very effective. Same as Google, they profit from a direct link between content and advertising. The biggest difference is the implicit/explicit degree of sneakiness involved.

  2. JK says:

    They are positioning themselves as the people who can help you regain control over your information, and perhaps even one day some of your privacy.

    I’m not an all out Google fan and I’m a skeptic on the IPO, but this is a smart way to develop their brand.

  3. giles says:

    IMHO you are reading too much into this.

    Bundling a small exe in your app that brings in a steady stream of money is pretty tempting even to the most well meaning programmers. Google are just having a stab at trying to curb it because its such a short-sighted, shitty way of making a quick buck. (Don`t be evil remember.)

    As you say, Google is in the advertising business. No respectable (respected, sorry) company advertises using bundled adware so Google would do well to keep as far away from them as possible.

  4. Google is in the bla-bla business on this one. They accept ads from horrible auto-installing software and other similar scams in Italy – no questions asked.

  5. Fazal Majid says:

    Great, just what we need – more sanctimonious posturing by Google. There is certainly no direct link to Google’s privacy policy and discussion of their use of cookies from either their home page or their search results pages. Their cookies are also not tagged with P3P, nor do they have a P3P privacy policy in the standard location, http://www.google.com/w3c/p3p.xml. I have Firefox set to refuse Google cookies, but how are IE users going to opt out, short of disabling cookies across the board?

  6. I have seen some PR men in my time, for someone who is supposed to be a independent objective journalist, JB is one of the most Bias hype artists ever.

    JB, you must hold millions of dollars of stock in Google to promote such hype all the time.

    Please state your equity position for all to see or we will make a complaint to the SEC.

  7. Sigh. No, as I have written elsewhere on my site, I own no Google stock, nor do I own any stock in any of the companies I am paying attention to for the purposes of the book. Nor, if you were to closely read what I wrote and what I write, do I run PR for Google. Thanks for the feedback though. I’m flattered you’d think the SEC would give a hoot about me.

  8. You say you ARE a paid PR man for Google or you are NOT a paid PR man for Google. Can you let the public know about this.

    Also please explain why you protect Google and do not want to expose Google spyware for what it is.

  9. So it seems that what goes around comes around.

    ALL SPYWARE AND ADWARE SHOULD BE OUTLAWED! Period…..

    Next these guys will be riding along on toolbars, spyware on spyware

    http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104_2-5250383.html?tag=zdnn.alert

  10. Adam Rifkin says:

    Wow, some of these commenters should just… chill.

    John, thank you for the insights. I just spent a few hours playing with Google Desktop and I don’t know how I was able to live without it. Perhaps that really wasn’t living. :)