In Malte Ubl’s response to some legitimate (and very direct) questions about the governance of Google’s Accelerated Mobile Project (AMP), there’s a section that jumped out at me:
The discussion is happening here with the scope of AMP. We cannot and will not extend the scope of this GitHub project to proprietary integrations of AMP. That may be frustrating but it is the way it works and a very common setup for open source projects.
In other words, the AMP team is more than happy to publicly discuss AMP’s technical specification, but not “proprietary integrations of AMP.”
Here’s the thing, though: AMP’s value is almost exclusively derived from “proprietary integrations.” As I’ve written before, AMP’s integration into Google search is arguably the reason publishers use the format; AMP’s supposed performance benefits are effectively driven by Google hosting the pages on their massively fast servers. And now, with AMP landing in Gmail and WordPress, it’s increasingly difficult for publishers to opt out of AMP. (If not outright impossible, at this point.)
And none of these integrations—the very things that define AMP’s value—are subject to any kind of review or oversight. Unless you work at Google, that is.
But what if [the companies] were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?
Shortly after reading Jeremy’s post, I came across this article on various American corporations ending benefits for NRA members. The article argues that this trend of corporations-as-activists is the result of an ongoing politicization of the public sphere, which is itself the result of a government that’s unable (or unwilling) to serve its citizens:
Many business leaders are getting political because they have determined that, in this environment, the noisiest position is often to remain silent in the face of national condemnation. But in politics, responding to one group of consumers invariably means angering another.
But there is something else happening: Corporations are becoming more democratic than democratic governance itself. Or, at least, they have proven to be far more responsive to political outcries and scandals than political parties.
This is, to say the least, a chilling trend. Nobody should celebrate a government that’s unresponsive to the needs of its citizens. But it’s even harder to celebrate corporate entities, free of oversight or accountability, stepping in to address some of those issues.
…okay, that’s a bit of a tangent for this little post. But I think there’s something here that applies to AMP, and to initiatives like it. Heck, one could even argue the creation of AMP isn’t just Google’s failure, but our failure. More specifically, perhaps it’s pointing to a failure of governance of our little industry. Absent a shared, collective vision for what we want the web to be—and with decent regulatory mechanisms to defend that vision—it’s unsurprising that corporate actors would step into that vacuum, and address the issues they find.
And once they do, the solutions they design will inevitably benefit the corporation first, and the rest of us second. If at all.