Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

May 12, 2006 - 4 minute read - Research policy privacy

Alan Davidson on Internet Regulation and Design

As part of the Technology and Policy Program’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, Alan Davidson gave a talk today titled “Internet Regulation and Design” from the point of view of Google, where he works as the Washington Policy Counsel (aka Chief Lobbyist). Google currently has a small (three person) office in DC, representing their interests.

The first part of Davidson’s talk was the standard Google spiel: much like faculty on a common research grant, it seems senior Google staffers draw from a common pool of slides. Davidson’s talk focused more on people than Udi Manber’s NSDI keynote (that I’ve already summarized), which was more technical. He included things like the number of employees (6000ish, doubling every 18 months or so), number of offices (20ish), and the number of languages supported (100ish). The push for Google now is beyond web pages: the next frontier is things like making the world’s offline information available. While Book Search is still in the 20% of their 70-20-10% rule, they are investing not-insignificant efforts in that direction.

The bulk of his talk was in examples about how Google is trying two keep two basic goals (principles?) in sight with respect to policy: first, they like the free end-to-end net with no gatekeepers, and second, they in general simply want the freedom to innovate (and thus don’t try to get (yet) any special favors from regulation). Davidson discussed this by summarizing three basic issues: content regulation, net neutrality, and copyright. His presentation of these issues was at a basic level, introducing the concepts to the audience and Google’s basic approach. Nothing too new here.

The more interesting points came out in the 20 minutes of discussion following. When asked about the broadcast/webcast rights treaty, he suggested that this would probably be a bad thing for the net, making yet another hurdle that had to be cleared before using certain media.

There were a number of questions about net neutrality. One person asked whether Google considered forming a coalition with other companies to try and prevent telcos and last mile providers from taking advantage of them; Google hasn’t thought about that and probably would rather prevent the law allowing telcos to charge providers. David Clark asked a question about market power and historical precedence for regulation with respect to spectrum scarcity; I think this was one of the more interesting questions but I lacked the policy background to fully understand it and the answer.

Not specifically related to the talk, one person raised privacy as another concern: how can we trust that Google is really not secretly giving your data to the government (for example)? Davidson replied on several fronts. First, Google strives not to keep personal information unless you explicitly allow it to. If you don’t like cookies, don’t enable them. If you don’t like Google Mail or Google Search History, don’t use them. Secondly, he argued that the law (e.g., the fourth amendment) hasn’t kept pace: your computer in your own house or your paper calendar is protected and requires that a warrant be shown to you, but if you keep your data on an ISP’s server, you don’t necessarily get to see that warrant or challenge it. Finally, he noted that Google in general does not base its business model on constructing profiles of users; things like targeted ads are based on your search keywords (and your IP address proxying for your geographical location, I imagine).

With regards to China, Davidson restated Google’s standard answer (e.g., notification of removal and no personal information on Chinese soil). When asked what he would like the government to do with respect to China, he said that it would be nice if the US laid out ground rules or best practices for US corporations to follow. For example, in any country where Google removes search results to comply with local laws (e.g., hate speech in Germany or regulations in China), it would be nice if they only had to comply if formally served with a notice indicating the law that was being violated and the content to be removed. As one company, they have no power to demand or request this: China would probably be happy to see Google leave. But, if 100 companies followed this policy and it had the backing of the US government, it would carry more weight.

I asked him afterwards about whether Google will be increasing its lobbyist efforts; a single Bell has more lobbyists working for it than Google, Microsoft and Yahoo combined. He was very interested in getting more people with good technology background down in DC. Google will definitely be expanding their efforts there. Let’s hope it helps.