[OSM-talk] We Need to Stop Google's Exploitation of Open Communities

Frederik Ramm frederik at remote.org
Fri Apr 15 08:29:06 BST 2011


On 04/11/2011 05:27 PM, Mikel Maron wrote:
> http://brainoff.com/weblog/2011/04/11/1635

In the following message, all quotes are from your blog post.

I've given this matter some thought and I think while your concerns are 
legitimate, you are perhaps overreacting a bit.

OpenStreetMap and Google have always been friendly competitors. We have 
profited a lot from Google. They have invented many things that we could 
copy (e.g. the "slippy map"); they have blazed a trail that we could 
follow, they have made online maps into the commodity they are, they 
have established the product and created the market.

How often have I had it easy to OSM to someone because I could say: This 
is just like Google Maps, just that <list differences>.

Google have also supported us directly. Ed Parsons being present at a 
number of State of the Map conferences has given us a credibility boost 
in the eyes of many (when they could also have sent a low-ranking minion 
for information gathering). Google gave us cash for a new server at a 
time when money wasn't flowing like it is today; and they have given our 
project Summer of Code stipends even though it would have been perfectly 
in their right to say "no, we don't want to support the competition".

On top of all this, they have patiently accepted that we are bashing 
their product nearly every time we "market" OSM: We are like Google 
Maps, only better!

> Google’s strategy is to build market in Africa by appropriating the
> appearance of open data community methodologies, yet maintaining
> corporate control of what should rightfully be a common resource.

I share your sentiment, but I have long given up fighting this. I stand 
aghast at someone waving their iPhone, asking them why on earth they 
willfully submit to Apple's dictate over what they can and cannot do on 
this little machine that, for many, quickly becomes an integral part of 
their life. Their answer: "It just works!" - I see people uploading half 
their lifes to Twitter, geocaching.com, Facebook, and I say "don't you 
know these are closed platforms operated by commercial entities with the 
aim of maintaining corporate control?" - and they go "but everyone does 
it, and it works so well, it doesn't cost a thing, and anyway it's not 
really closed, look it even has an API!"

And what works for the individual also works for large organisations - 
whole universities training their geography students in ESRI software 
because ESRI made this great offer where the academic license was almost 
free and comes with premium support - when one could argue that this 
provides them quite a bit of corporate control over education.

What you lament for countries in Africa has happended to cities in 
Germany in very similar fashion - the city had their own geodata but no 
printed street map; a publishing house came along and offered to print 
free street maps for everyone if they get an exclusive license to using 
the data in print; the city said "great, win-win situation" and signed 
the contract; now they're stuck with second-rate printed maps and don't 
even control their own resources.

It happens all over the world, all the time - commercial entities making 
offers that are too good to refuse, just sign away a tiny little part of 
your sovereignty here and we'll give you all this for free. (Thing 
exploration of natural resources!) I, too, find a lot to be criticised 
here, but I think it is unfair to single out Google.

> What bothers me so much is how they have blatantly copied
> OpenStreetMap. First their MapMaker product is directly modelled on
> OSM, but with a restrictive data license, where you can not use the
> data as you see fit. Second, they have stolen the idea of Mapping
> Parties, a unique concept and name we developed. Third, they’re even
> copying initiatives to map impoverished informal settlements, like
> Map Kibera.

I think "blatantly copy" and "steal" are not the right words to describe 
the situation. Could we have patented the ideas of OSM and of mapping 
parties if we had wanted to? I doubt it. It is ok for others to be 
inspired by the success of OSM - just as we have been inspired by what 
Google offers their users in online mapping.

I think we have to admit that "free and open" is a luxury thing. First 
you want a working computer, and then you can think about whether it's 
free and open. If Microsoft offers to install a Windows PC in every 
school in your impoverished city, you will not say no just because it's 
a proprietary operating system.

And while some might bash Microsoft for exploiting the weakness of the 
other side in this situation, I don't think that's fair - they make an 
offer and the other side is free to accept or reject.

Which brings us back to Google offering, as you say "free maps" to 
impoverished countries in return for, I assume, commercial exploitation 
rights to the geodata that has been collected. Yes, you could say 
they're exploiting the weakness of the other side - but then again, just 
like the iPhone user is allowed to sign away his liberty to install 
whatever he pleases for a few of Apple's baubles because "it just 
works", isn't the impoverished country allowed to sign away their 
geodata in return for a non-free web map that "just works"? Maybe this 
is all they want - maybe this is, indeed, the best deal for them?

It wouldn't be the best deal for me, but then again I am not using an 
iPhone. I can try and talk people out of such decisions that I think are 
bad, but in the end it is their call. I hate Apple for seducing them 
("but don't you SEE, they're luring you into this golden cage") but 
that's irrational; I don't have anything that would seem like a better 
offer to them.

> All of this with no credit, and no shame. I’m sick of Google. What
> can we do?
> I’ve tried to stay civil with them, through years of this kinda
> stuff. I’m friends with many googly Googlers. But I don’t see
> cooperating or being quiet helping at all. They’re deceptive and need
> to be stopped.

Now if Google really was "deceptive" over and above what everyday 
marketing entails, then that would be a point to oppose. However, I 
think that it is very likely that even if you concisely and clearly lay 
down the terms, spelling out the fact that Google retains intellectual 
property rights over a lot of the data, they would still be taken up on 
their offer.

> Seriously, Google claimed to map “the largest slum in Africa”, with
> “citizen cartographers”. They’re building their business by
> glorifying half-baked “community” mapping initiatives, promoting
> their brand on the back of poverty.

Now I don't know the details behind that. But if I am not mistaken, then 
you told us yourself that when you ran the Map Kibera project, you had 
to pay people to map because otherwise they would be forced to spend 
every spare minute trying to earn money, and would not have time to do 
mapping as a "hobby" like most of us. Correct me if I'm wrong but to me 
this implies that once the money dries up, the "community" will also be 
gone. If you want to make the point that whatever Google does there is 
half-baked, then you have got to provide more substance, and explain. 
Poor people, in my experience, often tend to be ruthlessly pragmatic - 
if for some reason Google gives them better immediate results than OSM 
can deliver, then they will go with Google, no matter how much us 
westerners decry the lack of freedom.

> I totally get why African governments and techies are excited about
> Google. Their moves in Africa are going to help build up the market
> for everyone. What is horrible is the hidden dangerous bargain
> they’re offering. To most people, Google is not just a company, but a
> force for good in the world. They even forget its a business, with so
> much done for “free”. But remember, it’s an extremely lucrative
> business, and they reason they don’t participate in OpenStreetMap,
> like every other major internet company (AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo…), is
> because it doesn’t make sense for their bottom line. They see value
> in owning your data.

I think that's unfair again. As I have explained above, lots of major 
internet companies see a lot of value in owning your data, and are quite 

> They’re moving to own the data of communities
> and governments in Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia. They can do whatever they
> like with the data, they own it. Of course, they will eventually take
> advantage of that. Scratch eventually, they changed the terms on
> Friday, so you have to pay to opt out of GMaps API advertising.

Again, I share your sentiments. I think that advertising, today, is 
mostly evil, and I make every effort to banish advertising from my life. 
However, I think this is a luxury thing as well. If advertising on the 
map is the price you have to pay for someone mapping your country - and 
if you're willing to pay that price because you get good value for it - 
then why not.

I think Google's business model is sound, and while I would try to avoid 
the advertising business as much as possible, the deal they have to 
offer isn't unethical.

What would be unethical, and you have hinted at that, is if Google were 
to deliberately mislead people about what the deal entails.

So my take on this would be not to try and "stop" Google or "shame" 
them; just make sure that the other side knows exactly what they are 
signing up for, and if they then still want to sign, then so be it - 
it's their choice.

As proponents of free and open data, we could do our part in setting the 
record straight - we could explain and exhort the value of free and open 
data, and try to make people understand why we think that anything 
non-free has considerably less value. We could monitor what Google 
offers these people, and if Google's offer is indeed misleading, we 
could point that out and request that Google play fair.

But even if Google are completely fair and tell everybody exactly what's 
on the table, there will *still* be people who want to take them up on 
their offer - just as there are people buying iPhones, or using Twitter, 
or using Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Xing, or any other non-free platform. 
We have to accept that.

Even if it is hard sometimes ;)


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