Whether Mail, Drive, Calendar or Search, Google provides crucial, popular public Internet infrastructure.
So what happens when it decides that infrastructure is no longer worthy of support? When the profits are not sufficient for a public company's needs?
We learned this the hard way with the recent shutdown of Google Reader. An essay by correspondent Ryan Avent for The Economist frames this decidedly digital issue much in the same way as the roads, bridges, pipes and other physical infrastructure we enjoy.
We tend not to entrust this sort of critical public infrastructure to the private sector. Network externalities are all fine and good to ignore so long as they mainly apply to the sharing of news and pics from a weekend trip with college friends. Once they concern large swathes of economic output and the cognitive activity of millions of people, it is difficult to keep the government out. Maybe that deterrent will be sufficient to keep Google providing its most heavily used products. But maybe not.
Should Google's privately provided goods and services become the domain of the government, much as the public transit systems in major cities have? Quite a partisan issue, obviously.
The key point here is that it is perhaps not so strange to think of these things as public services, especially as they become less than profitable.
Would you pay for Google Reader? Support a Wikipedia tax? Long for a BBC-style Facebook license fee?