Google, the World Bank, and Public-Private Data Partnerships

25 February 2012

By Nathaniel Heller

Heller is Managing Director of Global Integrity, a Washingon-based nongovernmental organization, and this was posted Feb. 24 on the Global Integrity blog.

On Wednesday, several organizations, including Global Integrity, met with the open data team at the World Bank to discuss open data trends as well as concerns over the recently-announced partnership between the World Bank and Google to promote Google’s Map Maker platform to governments in the global South. We’ve previously covered the controversy here, here, and here.

The conversation helped to crystallize my own thoughts around why this particular deal gives me such heartburn. It reflects the trade-offs inherent to any public interest organization partnering up with large for-profit companies in an attempt to address public policy challenges. There’s no doubt that public-private partnerships can work in a development context, including in the open data space. But failing to think through both sides’ incentives can set things up for failure.
 
First, the bits I can share from the meeting this week. One, it is clear that our friends and colleagues at the Bank a) understand the seriousness of the concerns expressed by a number of groups and individuals in the past month, and b) are taking concrete steps to address those concerns. I applaud that. What’s also clear to me: the legal and data ownership implications of a platform like Google Map Maker got mixed up in the rush by the Bank to try and promote greater public access to existing Google Map Maker data.
 
Second, I came out of the meeting with a better sense of what my own core concerns are with the deal. They go well beyond the World Bank and Google. The crux of it, in my view, is the fact that large multinationals like Google have a fundamentally different set of incentives and values compared with an institution like the World Bank (breaking news!). The Bank’s job is to alleviate poverty. Google’s job is to return a higher share price to its stockholders. That means increasing profits wherever possible. And that may not always be in the interests of a partner like the World Bank.
 
While I don’t question Google’s support to a wide range of public policy initiatives (we’ve collaborated with them on initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, for example), I do believe they will always put profit ahead of the public interest (Google’s anti-SOPA stance was as much good business as good morals). They’re frankly required to do so by U.S. securities law. So when push comes to shove — think Google’s battle with the Chinese government over censorship — the company will rarely have the flexibility to embrace what is obviously “good.” It will need to weigh what is “good” with what is profitable. And the ultimate decision may not be the one that is in the public interest.
 
These aren’t academic concerns. Earlier this week, Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the popular Blackberry smartphone, announced the opening of a data center in Mumbai, India that has been built in part to allow the Indian intelligence services to eavesdrop on Blackberry users on the sub-continent with RIM’s full cooperation and endorsement. This is the price RIM is paying to do business in India, a market it desperately needs to help stay afloat as its market share in North America and Europe is being eviscerated by the iPhone and Android platforms. Pretty ugly, right?
 
More of this is coming, not less. When the breakthroughs are finally made to liberate and digitize personal health records in major economies, we’ll see a mad scramble by everyone from Google and Microsoft to mom and pop startups to capture, scrape, and resell that data to the likes of insurance companies…unless strict regulations are enforced to prevent those sorts of abuses.  Frankly, why wouldn’t those companies try and resell such an incredibly valuable asset? It’s in their financial interest. And if new campaigns like the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency succeed in liberating massive amounts of government budget data around the world in the coming years, you can expect a similar gold rush mentality to aggregate and sell that data to the highest bidder, political implications be damned.
 
No company in the world is better positioned or more interested in aggregating and monetizing the world’s information than Google; Map Maker and geo-data are just small examples. That’s Google’s right, and the innovations the company has introduced along the way have been hugely important. But just because a company touts a mantra of “Don’t be evil” doesn’t mean there aren’t real financial pressures and incentives to be, at times, at least a little evil. Once in a while. But only when there’s a huge amount of profit involved. And we promise not to do it again.
 
Public-private partnerships in the open data space can work, but only when they are designed to take account of (and maximize) both sides’ core interests. So let’s not kid ourselves or set Google up to fail by assuming that it’s in business for any other reason than to maximize its profit. Perhaps a good tagline for the rest of us would be, “Don’t be naive.”

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In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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