After Youtube recently started taking down cryptocurrency videos, the cryptocurrency community is left to wonder about Google and its views on cryptocurrencies once more.
Though Youtube ultimately ended up saying that its ban of blockchain and cryptocurrency-related videos (including simple tutorials introducing Bitcoin) was an “error” and that all videos would be reinstated, it follows a pattern of hostility towards cryptocurrencies from Google that cannot be ignored.
Start with, for example, Google’s previous ban on cryptocurrency advertising. At the time, Facebook had just banned cryptocurrency advertising as well, meaning the two largest advertising solutions had decided not to offer their monopolistic share of the market to a growing industry — effectively excluding cryptocurrencies from most paid advertising solutions. This ban extended to Adwords solutions on Youtube, keyword searches on Google, and more. Though it was eventually overturned, it showed that Google was watching the space closely and was willing to take quick, harsh decisions based on what they were seeing.
Google then suspended popular Ethereum mobile wallet MetaMask from the Google Play Store, citing “deceptive services” and referring to a financial services policy that among other things, bans the ability to mine cryptocurrency on mobile for Play Store apps and doesn’t allow apps “that expose users to deceptive or harmful financial products and services”.
The MetaMask team appealed the suspension and were turned down almost immediately. MetaMask not only serves as a useful digital wallet, it also helps unlock a bunch of decentralized Web3 applications by default (commonly known as DApps), letting users benefit from the decentralized web with little effort on their part. You need a digital wallet to access DApps such as the ones listed here.
The MetaMask team later said the following: “I very much hope that this was an honest mistake on the part of Google’s reviewers, but in combination with all the crypto YouTube bans, it definitely puts me at disease about how Google is engaging with decentralizing technologies. If people accept this behavior from a mobile monopoly like Google, we may not deserve something better.”
Cryptocurrency users can think of many reasons why Google might censor them and the applications they are building. Foremost among them is the fact that many cryptocurrency and decentralized apps go directly against the central business model of Google: capturing digital attention through providing the underlying infrastructure for much of the Web.
This is true from Brave, that while using Chromium, is an alternative browser to Chrome, to distributed video applications such as DTube that are steadily gathering content you don’t have to go to Youtube to browse.
Google has invested heavily in the web as it is built today, served in a centralized fashion from host servers to clients around the world and regulated content when it comes to copyright and other statutes. Asking it to change from that lifeblood towards a more decentralized view of the web through new cryptocurrencies, decentralized applications and protocols like IPFS that flip host-client to a set of flattened peer-to-peer relationships is a bit like asking an oil company to start investing in renewables.
There is also pressure from regulators and legistators that Google has to deal with. Its American homebase may have legislators on the fence, though Congressional disapproval of Facebook’s Libra probably did not escape Google’s notice. Less ambiguous is China’s direct and stark directives on cryptocurrencies for its citizens — and Google has proven through Project Dragonfly, a censored version of the Google search engine that was aborted, that it is not above working with the Chinese state to compromise its principles if it means profitability.
Lastly, there are probably people within the company who are split on the matter, and some may lean towards pro or anti-crypto views. With many absorbed in the Silicon Valley ethos, they would have had contact with cryptocurrencies, from Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s son running an Ethereum miner to co-founder Sergey Brin admitting Google wasn’t on the “cutting edge of blockchain” and saying that he and his son, in turn, also mine Ethereum. Yet despite the public views of senior executives, it’s entirely possible that Google employees placed in tactical roles and day-to-day choices on cryptocurrencies might think differently.
It’s clear that Google is acting in a manner that is semi-hostile, at best, to cryptocurrencies, with censorship of key applications, introductory content and advertising options for an emerging technology that might attack its business model and (sometimes) comfortable relationships with legislators. What can be done?
For most developers, the answer will be the standard one: build something better.
Yet, there should be more than that — starting with highlighting why data governance and decentralization matter in the first place and defining what “better” means to the mass of Internet users who don’t really care enough to find out for themselves. Google’s security policies are top-notch, and the company has done well to portray itself as a relatively even-keeled and trustworthy guardian of a trove of user data. However, it is vulnerable in certain places.
Though it currently hosts 92%+ of search volume on the web, technology often shifts rapidly, such as when Chrome took over an exponential amount of volume over Internet Explorer — where in about a decade, it went from 0% usage to nearly 70%, while Internet Explorer made the reverse slide. It could be easy to see how Google might not be as worried about nearest competitor Bing, run through a centralized model from Microsoft they are used to competing with as they might be worried about the much smaller, but more menacing threat of privacy-focused DuckDuckGo.
Google is used to competing with Microsoft, another centralized corporation, by making sure that search quality and infrastructure are up to par — an incumbent advantage Google can maintain almost indefinitely.
But with DuckDuckGo, user demand is intently focused on something Google can’t totally provide and dominate: trust. Trust that Google or any centralized organization will always do right with the data they are being given, trust that now or later bits or bytes might not betray one’s most intimate details to criminal or state-sanctioned oppressors, trust that Google will never have an incentive to broadcast its own content or to censor the content of others for profit.
As it is with DuckDuckGo, so it can be with distributed video, document creation and syndication, and the array of products Google provides. In many ways, the current version of the Internet is a great compromise between users and their eyeballs and the useful services Google provides for that attention. Users accept that their data will end up being used or sold elsewhere for products that save them time and make their lives easier. It is DuckDuckGo and DApps, which question the very nature of that relationship, that represent an existential threat to this model.
Another thread comes up when it comes to the large size of tech giants such as Google. Politicians have spent lots of time trying to confront new Internet realities with old legal frameworks. The truth is that for most end users and consumers of Google products, the traditional anti-trust- monopoly contrast doesn’t quite work because we’re talking about monetizing attention rather than paying for products upfront — so the consumer welfare standard and the exigence of low prices has problems when faced with a model of a giant company looking to provide products for free or near-free monetarily. Many of the costs that might come with concentration of Internet attention and (sometimes) misplaced trust are hard to price, especially in a context where there is no financial price at all for end users.
Yet cryptocurrency builders are facing traditional monopoly problems on the other side of the Google marketplace (Google and Facebook captured 63% of online ad spending in 2017 per a Wharton study) that do conform more closely to traditional anti-trust principles, facing elevated pricing on ads and pricing discrimination or even exclusion of service because there quite simply aren’t very many providers, if any, that can provide the services Google can with advertising beyond Facebook.
If the two coordinate to discriminate against a certain product category, that product category already faces headwinds to succeed. This may not be as politically fraught territory as lowering prices for the average American — but it can be a duopolistic and now anti-cryptocurrency element worth exploring.
A thread that intertwines this all is the amount of political scrutiny faced by Google. Legistators that are pushing hard on Google for dominating data and the Internet may be more amenable to alternative solutions — overcoming some initial skepticism about the cryptocurrency and Web 3.0 movement.
Cryptocurrency and decentralized web advocates should also be wary of how Google responds to a growing trend of data and internet nationalization: either the company will seek to accommodate the stringent demands of different governments in order to get access to balkanized parts of the Internet, or they will seek to ignore those spaces entirely.
Given the profit motive, a combination of the two leaning towards the former for unmissable markets is likely to be the case, meaning that a whole host of centralized nation-state entities (China, Russia and more), some with less checks and balances and pluralism than the United States government, may enter the discussion — to the potential detriment of the cryptocurrency community.
One thing is clear through all of this. The censorship of cryptocurrencies by Google isn’t a one-off event and doesn’t seem very much like an “accident”. It’s a “cold” war at best between two very different visions of the Internet. Google has chosen to contest that new decentralized, peer-to-peer vision rather than adapt to it for now, leaving the potential for future conflict — and censorship — to remain quite high.