15 March 2013

Internet services or Internet utilities? More thoughts on the death of Google Reader

The week began with me writing that I could not have written my latest research paper without two services from Google: Google Alerts and Google Analytics. The week ends with me writing about Google pulling a service that I use in my work routinely. Irony.

To go even further, last night listening to the Science podcast, I hear a story about how a team showed you can predict interactions between available drugs before this is recognized by the American Food and Drug Administration. How do they do this>? Using data from Google.

The raises a question. How useful does a service have to be that a company has a moral obligation to keep a service running? How widely used does something have to be before it stops being something that a single private company should control?

Imagine if Google decided that it wanted to get out of search. Sure, some people would say, “Hey, no big deal. DuckDuckGo and Ask all exist. Meybe even Bing could become relevant.” But let’s realize that for many people, Google’s search engine practically is the Internet. And Google data is being used for scientific research in a way that other services are not.

Many have pointed out that we can’t expect free services to last. Someone has to pay. Usually, people think of ads or subscriptions, and stop.

We may need to start thinking about some core functions of the Internet not to be handled only by services that individual companies can do as they want with. We may need to think of starting to establish chunks of the Internet utilities. And utilities are things that get regulated. There is a reason why we don’t have a hodge-podge of private roads. Common, stable, public infrastructure matters.

For instance, Google Scholar was largely anticipated by PubMed. PubMed’s problem for me is that it is too focused on biomedicine, and there aren’t equivalent services for other fields. But that it is a publicly supported utility means I have much more confidence in its permanence than I do for Scholar.

You might notice that these arguments about services used by scientists parallel arguments made about the products made by scientists (i.e., open access publishing). In both cases, the concern is about having the stuff scientists need to work being controlled by private business. Perhaps supporters of open access need to start putting as much emphasis on Internet services, like Google, Google Scholar, and Google Reader. After all, we’ve already seen one tool for academic referencing, Mendeley, look like it will be bought by Elsevier, a for profit publisher. Mendeley pushed open data sharing, and was lauded for it. Elsevier might not have the same ethos.

Are there services on the Internet that are “too big to fail”? They should be identified sooner rather than later. And we should think about how we can create thriving, stable ecosystems of those services, not ones that can disappear at a moment’s notice.

External links

Paging Dr. Google
Elsevier in advanced talks to but Mendeley
Why RSS still matters

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