Law in the Internet Society


Google Voice

-- SethLindner - 11 Feb 2010

To make the presentation more clear, I've decided to do a complete re-write of my first paper in response to Professor Moglen's feedback. My initial comments on Google Voice ignored some significant Free Software alternatives and placed undue emphasis on the weaknesses in Google's privacy policy. In this revision, I'd like to clarify what it is that Google Voice provides (touching briefly on how each of us could do the same thing for ourselves without sacrificing our privacy) and then spend some time exploring what Google's purpose might be.

Anything Special?

After our class discussions regarding telephone service, one might be left wondering whether Google Voice actually has any unique capabilities. In other words, is there anything that Google Voice can do that I couldn't do myself with some Free Software? The answer, it appears, is very little. And if you are willing to pay a very small fee for some services, then there is even less that makes Google Voice unique.

First of all, anyone just looking to make free secure voice calls from one computer to another can do so just as easily as one uses email. There are a number of free softphone options depending on which operating system you use. Most of these support both audio and video. All of them are licensed under GPL. For Windows, you might consider VoxOx, Linphone, QuteCom, or VoiceChatter. For MAC, there is Blink, QuteCom, VoiceChatter, and others. If you are running Linux, the options are nearly unlimited, with Empathy, Twinkle, and Ekiga seeming to be the most popular choices. Setup here is virtually painless.

Most of the other features of Google Voice (e.g., call forwarding/redirecting, ringing multiple lines at once, handling incoming calls based on the caller) can be accomplished by a Free Software operating system called Asterisk@home (now known as Trixbox). This is quite a powerful tool capable of doing a lot more than routing calls. The details aren't important for our discussion here. The bottom line is that most of what Google (along with AOL, Skype, and Microsoft) offers for "free" (as in beer) can really be had Free (as in speech).

From what I can tell, there are only a few things that make Google Voice unique. As you might expect, these are also the features that Google is probably using to monetize Google Voice. The first is voicemail message transcription. Google Voice does a pretty good job with this (although certainly not without competition from other paid subscription companies), no doubt based on its enormous (new) databank of English phrases (from the Google Books scanning project). The second unique feature is direct interface with GOOG-411 directory assistance, which provides location specific information on businesses. Finally, Google Voice provides free outbound calling to all phones in the United States and Canada. This last part may be what attracts most users, but it is really not much of an advantage, since there are very low cost alternatives (around 1000 minutes for $1 -- all you really need to pay for is the connection at the back end to the copper wire system).

Google's Purpose

Hopefully it is clear to most readers that Google Voice is much like Gmail, Google Talk, and other ad-supported "free" services from Google in that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can the same functionality through much more private means. We can debate the reasons why many of us don't utilize these alternatives, but that is not my point here. I'd like to try and shed some light on what Google is doing so that we can all be more well-informed in our decisions.

Google makes money when our digital interactions with the world utilize its products. It recognizes that mobile access to information will dominate those interactions, and it wants as big of a piece of them as it can get. In terms of sheer bandwidth, voice calls alone make up very little of the data we send and receive, but they do provide a unique interaction that will always serve some purpose. There are some things that are just more easily communicated in a live verbal conversation, and there is value in a system that allows voice calls to reach you wherever you are. Google wants Google Voice to be that system because it takes it makes it easier for them to force users into using other Google services. Have you noticed that you can sign in to virtually every Google service with a single password? This certainly isn't the most secure method but that isn't Google's purpose. They want us to depend on them. That want to make it so easy for us to use and depend on their services that we become entangled in their web. Google Voice is a great example. You are meant to funnel all of your calls through Google so that the only phone number you give out is a Google phone number. But what happens when you want to change? How do you get your saved voice mail messages out of their system? It is painful. What about taking your phone number with you? You can't. The bottom line is that Google makes it easy to join and difficult to quit. Think of it like smoking cigarettes.

Choosing to use Google Voice isn't going to kill you. It probably won't directly cause any harmful invasions of your privacy. But using this service is undeniably taking you one step closer to total lack of control over our digital interactions with the world. And once you start, you become dependent.


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r5 - 13 Aug 2010 - 01:46:58 - SethLindner
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