A couple of days ago, Simon Barron at the Guardian posted a piece that claimed “Google can’t be trusted with our books,” because the company decided out of the blue to shut down Google Videos and pitch all user-uploaded content on the site in order to focus more on its search. A public outcry convinced Google to backpedal to the extent that it would see about preserving the content and making it available elsewhere, but Barron sees the original decision as a sign that Google might choose to dump any content at any time if it wants to.

As a private sector company, the core aim of Google is to make money. The Google Videos situation shows that in order to lower expenditure and adjust its priorities, Google was willing to delete content entrusted to it by users. Libraries have trusted Google with millions of documents: many of the books scanned by Google are not digitised or OCR-processed anywhere else and, with budgets for university libraries shrinking year after year, may not be digitised again any time in the near future. Google acted admirably by listening to users and working to save the videos but entrusting such vast cultural archives to a body that has no explicit responsibilities to protection, archiving and public cultural welfare is inherently dangerous: as the situation made clear, private sector bodies have the ability to destroy archives at a whim.

He goes on to talk about how cultural institutions and the public sector should be enabling access to digital information, bridging the digital divide, and so on, and that we should have a national digital library. While I can’t argue with that, I think it’s a little bit odd the way that he’s singling Google out.

Aside from the fact that plenty of people already didn’t trust Google with books without needing this provocation (which is why Google got sued by the Authors Guild), this really holds true for any commercial institution that has its hands on lots of user-generated content. If social-networking and blogging sites (for instance, the embattled also-ran MySpace which News Corp has just decided to try to sell to some other poor sucker) shut down, a lot of people would lose their stuff too.

And given how many recent cloud-based institutions have been failing all at once lately (speaking of losing user content, Time reports “Some Of the Data Lost in Amazon’s Cloud Outage is Gone Forever”) or getting badly hacked, it seems more and more like nothing digital is necessarily safe, Google or not.


  1. I think Time doesn’t understand Amazon’s Cloud Structure. I haven’ heard of anyone actually losing data in the outage, we certainly didn’t. Our developers just brought up new servers in a different availability zone and installed the latest snapshot, we were back up by the first evening. All of our data is replicated real-time to a slave db.

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