Strong opinions, weakly held

Discussion: is Obama too close to Google?

Over at Talking Points Memo, they’re holding a panel discussion on Barack Obama’s relationship with Google. Are they too close?

Here’s a specific question that was asked today:

Today over at the Mothership (that’s the TPM Front Page) we see one of the “wire” stories that the General Services Administration is negotiating with YouTube (a Google service) to post federal hearings, etc.

Given the uncomfortably close relationship between Google execs and Obama, should we be worried about this? I think so. YouTube is already the default video platform on the Web. But it does not have to be. And there is no clear reason for the government to solidify YouTube’s market dominance. In fact, there is no reason why the GSO could not mandate that all federal agencies post their videos in open forms — accessible, repostable, and mashable — on their own sites.

Then We the People could repost them on YouTube with commentary and maybe some cartoon graphics mixed in. Better yet, because .gov can’t deal with the bandwidth demands of too many folks pulling down popular videos, the federal government should post open format video as bittorrent files.

I can see both sides of this argument. Contracting with YouTube to host the videos clearly further cements Google’s position as the dominant player in hosting videos on the Web. At the same time, there’s no reason not to put them on YouTube. Many people expect YouTube to have what they’re looking for when it comes to online video. If you leave the videos off, people won’t find them, or they’ll find the remixed mashups people make and have no idea where to get the originals. That’s a problem.

I think BitTorrent is a terrible response to bandwidth issues. I love BitTorrent, but it’s not very user friendly.

At the same time, YouTube’s Flash videos are hosted in a closed format. If the US government is going to post videos online, they should be posted in a format that’s easy for end users to repurpose, for broadcasters to use, and so forth. So if YouTube is going to be the only place these videos are hosted, that’s a problem. If the US government is going to host videos there to stay in the mix, I think that makes sense.

As to the larger question, presented in the opening post in the series, as to whether the government should start looking at Google from an antitrust perspective, I think the answer right now is negative. There’s nothing to suggest that if some other company came out with a better index tomorrow that Google wouldn’t find itself losing traffic like it’s going out of style. Google is hardly the first search engine to dominate. Doubt it’ll be the last.

Update: Looks like we have our answer on downloadable videos. They’ll be made available through YouTube.

1 Comment

  1. Based on what I read about the “negotiations”, it was more about ensuring that YouTube’s terms of use were compatible with official government sharing and towards more open access to the content, ie the downloadable format.

    I’m sure that feature has been on Google’s list for a while, but it appears maybe that the Obama administration gave them the final push. It’s also worth noting that the transition team has posted their videos on multiple streaming sites (the latest is on YouTube, Vimeo, and MySpace–I’d seen some on Yahoo and MSN, not sure if that’s still going on).

    You’re right that it’s critical that Google be pressured to stay as open as possible, but it seems like Obama’s team is doing the right thing here.

    On the anti-trust question, while it does seem crazy that Google has such a big share of search (though fully deserved in you ask me), in the realm of stickier services like calendaring, webmail, IM, etc, they really aren’t one of the big players.

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