Mon 2 Nov 2009
I've written in the past about how expectations of privacy and free web-based services are on a collision course. This morning, NPR has a story about another importance consequence of free. Google Voice (which is free) is blocking thousands of calls to other free conference-call services, which are usually based in rural areas in places like Iowa. Part of why those conference call companies can be free is because they take advantage of a Federal law that allows rural phone companies to charge higher rates in order to spur competition. Those higher rates are paid by your phone service provider, not directly by you. But Google Voice doesn't want to pay higher rates, so it's started blocking calls to those services.
Free service, meet free service. FIGHT! Google's issue is that, to remain free, it's got to be cheap. Very cheap. They can't be paying higher fees! The math just doesn't work out. But this situation illustrates another issue with our expectations of free: if free services have to be cheap, does that mean we can expect lower quality service? Does that make free services a race to mediocrity? Google Voice certainly seems to be heading that way. What's frustrating is that many people won't care… until a service they use gets cut in cost savings.
What's even more troubling is that Google is arguing that it's not a phone company, so it can play by its own rules. Federal laws prohibit phone companies from blocking numbers, precisely because universal access is a communicative public good (using Fulk et. al's terminology). But Google just provides a piece of software that piggy-backs on the web. Well, excuse me, but that is bullsh*t, and regulators will soon show Google Voice that. When they do, will it be the end of Google Voice?