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Google to Columbia

So there’s been quite a bit of publicity lately over Google choosing a city to make as a host site for its uber-fast fiber connection. You can check out the extent to which some cities are going from this story by my colleague Alex Rozier.

On paper, it sounds like a great idea. It’d be huge for Mid-Missouri to get a major global connection through the world’s biggest and most powerful internet behemoth. Plus, it would be outstanding to upgrade the city’s feeble internet capability to a speed never yet seen in America, let alone Missouri. The connection would allow MU to bring tons of high-caliber students, professors, and investment thanks to the obvious attractiveness of gigabyte-per-second speed. Mid-Missouri could certainly benefit from the connection bringing lots of jobs – from cushy high-paying engineering jobs to internet hosting, construction jobs for all the infrastructure, and tons of further development. It really does sound like a great deal – and certainly Columbia fits the bill for what Google is looking for.

But I think we need to step back and take a look at what Google is going to require to come to Columbia. Nate Anderson of Ars Technica does a good job explaining the background to Google’s search for a city. Essentially, Google appears to not be asking for much in return for this. But let’s be honest – once they choose a city, the public hoopla will be so big, a city will HAVE to pay whatever Google’s price is to have them come in. Their own site for FAQs says “The final price has not yet been determined, but we intend to offer service at a competitive price.” In California, Verizon installed FiOS, a comparable internet service for roughly $682 million.That’s an enormous chunk of change that towers over Columbia’s yearly budget (usually in the range of $70-80 million).

So how much would Google want from the city of Columbia to potentially install all this? Or would they just do it gratis, and expect a major share of the subsequent financial avalanche of investment? Or is it just like buying internet service where you choose what you want? What information does Google want in return? Their mission, after all, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” (more here). It might be kind of cool to be able to pull up various governmental statistics in moments, but what about tax documents, medical records, addresses and phone numbers, and just about any other information considered “personal” and “private”? All of these questions seem very muddled in the hype over “Saint Google”.

I’m very skeptical of all of this. Yes, as I wrote above, it sounds wonderful. But it sort of reminds me of what my Indigenous People and Natural Resources class has been discussing for the past few weeks – how major corporations infiltrate local communities in 3rd world/undeveloped countries and exploit them and their land for cheap/easy industrial development – otherwise known as neocolonialism. Pardon my snarkiness, but Columbia’s Google Fiber cheerleaders over at comofiber.net remind me of some sort of Ecuadorian tribe emerging from the jungle cheering the arrival of missionaries promising to improve their lives – and 3 months later, they’re uprooted and moved to a reservation while the company comes in and takes their land/resources. Obviously, that won’t happen in reality should Google come here, but we really need to consider what Google is asking for should they come here. And, we shouldn’t be afraid to question the company. We can’t treat them like some sort of emperor swooping in to his colony with unlimited power – let’s get a good deal for Columbia that gives us the best of what Google can offer while not totally submitting to their will.

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