Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quaero: Euro-Culture, Industrial Politics & Intelligence Gathering in One?

The project to build a European competitor to Google -- Quaero -- may be tied up with more than 'just' cultural defense. Last spring, Google's announcement that it would proceed to digitize 15 million books and bring them online was met with an uproar in France. The uproar was fairly unrelated to the copyright concerns strongly voiced elsewhere. This, at least some influential people there felt, would amount to a further americanization of globalization, and thus to a challenge to the national identity of the French, and by implication, all other non-US national cultures:
[Director of the French National Library Jean-Noël Jeanneney] was immediately alarmed in December when he read that Google planned to scan 15 million English-language books and make them available as digital files on the Web. In his view, rather than democratizing knowledge, Google's move would further strengthen American power to set a global cultural agenda.

"I am not anti-American - far from it," the 62-year-old historian said in an interview in his office in the library's new headquarters overlooking the Seine. "But what I don't want is everything reflected in an American mirror. When it comes to presenting digitized books on the Web, we want to make our choice with our own criteria." When Google's initial announcement went unnoticed here, then, Jeanneney raised his voice. In a Jan. 23 article in Le Monde titled "When Google Challenges Europe," he warned of "the risk of a crushing domination by America in the definition of the idea that future generations will have of the world." And he urged Europe to "counterattack" to preserve its culture and political influence.

In subsequent interviews, he said Europe should not only convert its books into digital files, but should also control the crucial page rankings of responses to searches. And gradually his one-man campaign bore fruit. On March 16, with French newspapers, intellectuals and politicians now focusing on the Google challenge, President Jacques Chirac summoned Jeanneney and Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres to the Élysée Palace. After their meeting, a statement sa
id Chirac had asked them to study how French and European library collections could be rapidly made available on the Web. The statement concluded: "A vast movement of digitizing knowledge is under way across the world. Blessed with exceptional cultural heritage, France and Europe should play a central role in this." But where there is a will, is there a way?
A way there was, it turns out. A separate public funded scanning initiative is under way, but the most challenging element of the "French counter-attack" to Google's advancement is the newly unveiled plans for a joint French-German search engine consortium, by the name of Quaero. Basically, the plan is here to fund and encourage large and smaller French and German companies with specialty insight to participate in making a "European", Airbus-like competitor to Google.
Germany and France are negotiating on plans to inject E1 billion to E2 billion over five years into a public-private initiative to develop a series of sophisticated digital tools including a next-generation Internet search engine, a project organizer said. The program, called Quaero, would be paid for by the French and German governments and technology companies in both countries, including Thomson, Siemens, France Télécom and Deutsche Telekom. Philippe Paban, a spokesman for Thomson, which is leading the French effort, said Quaero's organizers might be ready to announce details of the project as early as next week.

Quaero, which means "I seek" in Latin, still faces several hurdles, including scrutiny of its public funding by the European Commission and uncertainty in Germany, where no single company has taken the lead and a coalition government elected in November has yet to publicly endorse the project. Organizers are also fighting some skeptics who maintain that Quaero could waste taxpayers' money in academic research that produces no commercial benefit.

The project, conceived in April by President Jacques Chirac of Franc
e and Gerhard Schröder, then the chancellor of Germany, is an attempt by two of Europe's largest economies to develop a local challenger to Google, the California-based search engine, which spent $327 million on research and development in the first nine months of 2005. In a speech this month laying out his 2006 agenda, Chirac spoke to those concerns, saying: "We must take up the challenge posed by the American giants Google and Yahoo. For that, we will launch a European search engine, Quaero." (...)

With Quaero, the French and Germans are hoping to build expertise in the technologies that are shaping the distribution of information and entertainment. The project aims to develop next-generation leadership in search technology, software for managing copyrights and digital ownership and what one document called "cultural-heritage management."
The reason: Culture, for the French -- but also for many Western European countries' by the look of their Ministries of Culture's budgets -- is not an industry, not something that produces commodities for comsomption, but something way more important. Even given that this is not untrue, and that public-private partnerships in R&D heavy areas are very common, this project seems awkward, with its whim of industrial politics driven by nationalism and autarky-hopes. Perhaps the parallel should less be Airbus, because Airbus produces a commodity in the extreme end of a scale, where one single sale can mean a lot -- with Google at the other end thriving on a zillion small steps. While airplane salesmanship, how tough it may be, is still a matter of long negotiations and sometimes political back room maneuvres, Google's core business, in other words, is in the perhaps toughest of all competitions, that for the ficklest of consumers, just lookin for an efficient way of looking up things. Customer loyalty may be high now, but if a competitor comes along with a better product, we'll all be gone in a month. Anyone remember Altavista?

The point being here, that creating a "national" or "European champion" in search technology from scratch even with this kind of money makes little sense. Of course, the proposed 1,5 billion dollars over five years do amount to something compared to an annual R&D budget close to the lower end of that estimate for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's search R&D, etc. But include the millions spent annually on developing DRM (digitial rights management) systems and software among the content providers and the amount seems less impressive. What is worse than potentially wasting taxpayers' money on reproducing something that the market offers efficiently for free is the strange idea that one would want to government regulated ranking of search results. One thing is achieving this technically, but up front the whole idea looks proposterous.

If we perceive this project to be not an all out cultural defense but also an investment in security politics it makes a little more sense. The European Union funded Galileo project has effectively ended the American monopoly on GPS systems, giving its member countries more of a leeway in using the acquired information at will. As was visible this week, Google's evergrowing appetite in collecting all kind of consumer and thus citizen related information suddenly got a tinge of real politics when the US Justice Department subpoenaed Google, Yahoo and other search engines for information about internet searches. Google was the only company to deny the motion, but the initiative still made more than one commentator wonder both whether that would be the last government attempt at getting access to privately collected data (viz. the continuing data mining projects concerning the war on terror at DoD and elsewhere), and how much information we actually put out there.

In this light, what the French might be hoping to do is to create an alternatively amassed and controlled heap of information, separate from Google's and the other privately held American companies' -- before their information gradually becomes accessible to the American intelligence agencies. And given that security politics is an area where every dollar spent is an investment in a less incertain future instead of instant profitability, Quaero may make more sense.

UPDATE, March 10: The Economist's article on Quaero has a few good observations, but none on the intel perspective.

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