Google: All Search Ends Here



Imagine the scenario where cars are zooming across the streets in your
city with 360-degree cameras mounted on top of them, visually capturing
every nook and corner of the town (including your apartment in one
sub-urbian neighborhood). Not just that these vehicles were also
capturing snippets of citizens’ private online activities on
unencrypted wireless networks.

Your last online transaction with your bank, that intimate online
tete-a-tete with your girlfriend, the departmental wranglings with your
boss last week over e-mails and details of all those exciting sites you
visited lat weekendall these information got captured, thanks to these
transactions happening over an unencrypted WLAN. Big Brother is not
just watching, he has got the total dope on whatever you are doing.

Though it sounds scary one still tends to dismiss this as some
Orwellian fantasy or the state-run program of some ex-Iron Curtain
country or worse the machinations of a tin-pot dictatorship. But what
really sends a chill down the spine is that this is for realdone by
Google in Hamburg, Germany, apparently inadvertently while collecting
data for its Street View program.

This scandal over Google’s collection of private data via its
controversial Street View application is now occupying Germany’s
justice system. The public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg, where Google
has its German headquarters, is investigating the company in the light
of its admission that it accidentally collected personal information
sent over wireless networks.

While Google admitted that the Hamburg action was a mistake and we are
profoundly sorry and agreed to hand over a hard drive from the roving
vehicles it used to compile its 360-degree Street View photo mapping
archive, the German investigation had now opened the Pandora’s box
elsewhere too.

 In the US, suits have been filed in Washington DC, California,
Massachusetts and Oregon by people who accuse Google of violating their
privacy
because the cars also collected data from open Wi-Fi
networks. A District Court in Portland, Oregon ordered Google to
make two copies of a hard drive containing data from the United States
and turn them over to the court. Since the Street View program has been
initially planned by Google only in Europe and the US, major privacy
concerns have been for now raised there, but surely the reactions would
not have been different in Asia or elsewhere.

While the Street View imbroglio sets a dangerous precedent about Google
becoming the biggest purveyor of private information, even worse is the
growing perception that Google is becoming the latest monopoly in the
tech world. Many analysts are even paranoid that the Google threat is
even worse than Microsoft’s monopoly threat about a decade back.

In fact, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has already called on the
US Department Of Justice to launch a broad antitrust investigation into
Google’s search
and advertising practices and consider a wide array of penalties,
including possibly breaking the company up. The watchdog, along with a
mobile entrepreneur and two lawyers representing Google rivals, has
called for an investigation focusing on a number of issues, including
Google’s marriage of search results to advertising and its book search
service.

For most people around the world Google has become the gateway to the
Internet, whether they like it or not. How it tweaks its proprietary
search algorithms can ensure a business’ success or doom it to failure.
It’s not just Consumer Watchdog, several analysts, legal functionaries
and privacy and antitrust advocates are criticizing several of Google’s
business practices, alleging they smack strongly of monopolistic
trends. The close ties between Google’s search results and search-based
advertising also means that the neutrality of the search results are
bound to get compromised.

Google has manipulated search and advertisement placement results to
shut out potential competitors who counted on Google results to drive
traffic to their sites, claims Joseph Bial, a lawyer at Cadwalader,
Wickersham & Taft who represents myTriggers.com and TradeComet.com.
Both companies have filed antitrust lawsuits against Google alleging
that the search giant shut out their attempts to advertise on
Google.com. Google’s dominance in search and search-based advertising
means that online and mobile advertisers have little choice but to do
business with them, alleges Simon Buckingham, the New York-based
founder of Ringtones.com and Appitalism..
However, even before US Department of Justice takes up the antitrust
case against Google, the first salvo has been fired by the European
Competition Commission (repudiating Europe’s reputation as a more
liberal, anti-monopolistic polity); it has started informally
investigating Google taking serious cognizance of three competitor
complaints made by UK price comparison site Foundem, French legal
search engine called ejustice.fr and Microsofts Ciao! From Bing.
Ironical to note Microsoft complaining about monopolies; how tables are
turned.

The allegations of monopoly has reverberated strongly last year too
during Google’s Book Search settlement In the short run, the Google
Book Search settlement unquestionably brings about greater access to
books collected by major research libraries over the years. But it is
very worrisome that this agreement, which was negotiated in secret by
Google and a few lawyers working for the Authors Guild and AAP has de
facto created two complementary monopolies with exclusive rights over a
research corpus of this magnitude.

Monopolies are prone to engage in many abuses. The Book Search
agreement is not really a settlement of a dispute over whether scanning
books to index them is fair use. It is a major restructuring of the
book industrys future without meaningful government oversight. The
market for digitized orphan books could be competitive, but will not be
if this settlement is approved as is. And with Google becoming the
exclusive arbiter in this domain, it’s virtually now both a player and
umpire in the same field.

According to blogger Joe Wilcox, Google’s real monopoly began with its
DoubleClick acquisition in December 2007. The acquisition changeD
everything about Google’s search and advertising dominance and
perceptions about the company’s growing status as gatekeeper to all
online information. The preliminary antitrust investigation from EU
comes as Google makes major changes to DoubleClick with hopes of
boosting its display advertising business. The changes mark the final
Googlefication of DoubleClick — or the realistic, final integration of
the acquisition into Google.

Summing up the worry areas it seems that Google is expanding a monopoly
over Web search and arguably trying to extend it into several adjacent
markets, including display advertising, desktop operating systems,
mobile operating systems, mobile Web applications and Web browsers. It
closely resembles Microsoft‘s
antitrust problems about a decade back that started with leveraging its
Intel-based desktop operating system monopoly into the market for Web
browsers.

Google’s free business model is disrupting many, major established
informational industries by reducing their contents’ value to zero —
subsidized by search and adjacent services from which Google profits.
That was the main grouse over which Rupert Murdoch threatened to pull
out all his publications out of the ambit of Google search. While
analyst estimates vary, the most reliable put Google’s online
advertising share at about 90% in the European Union.

Recent Google activities like the Street View data collection fracas in
Hamburg and also in some US cities or the Buzz privacy settings raise
serious questions about trusts. Can Google be trusted with all this
information? Street View seriously undermines privacy concerns and
literally portrays a picture Orwell predicted of the Big Brother in
‘1984’–and if the former Communist countries are ignored, then it’s
not the state, but a corporate business entity that’s emerging as the
Big Brother. Today’s economic realities? Buzz also demonstrates
Google’s increased willingness to put its interests ahead of customers.
Likewise, ongoing tweaks to the search and keyword business model,
technology or terms of agreement put Google’s interests before partners.

The US Justice Department went after Microsoft in May 1998 partly out
of fear the company would become the Internet’s gatekeeper. That never
happened with Microsoft, but it most certainly is occurring with
Google. Its business is all about profiting from information. Many
analysts argue that Google is not a search company but rather an
information company, with search being a means to an end — the end
being information around which the company sells keywords and
advertising. Google’s search share reaches 70-80% or more in some
geographies, according to combined analyst reports.

Google doesn’t just offer search, but advertising, keyword search and
demographic services around information and businesses pay for this
stuff. DoubleClick has greatly enhanced the latter activity. Marketers
are hungry for demographic information, and they are willing to pay for
it. Google provides the door, checks who’s coming inside and can pass
that information onto marketing paparazzi. Many fear that the
temptation to mine the information will be huge, and that temptation
will increase as Google matures, its growth slows and its stock falls
to earth.

Google’s information grabbing often abuses the intellectual property
rights of others. A late-2009 Fair Syndication Consortium study found
that over one 30-day period 75,195 Websites published unlicensed
content lifted from newspapers. Additionally, 112,000 unlicensed “full
copies of U.S. newspaper articles were found on sites across the
Internet.” The profit motive: Search-driven revenue, with Google
accounting for “53 percent of the total monetization.” Interestingly,
“38 percent of the sites were ranked in the top 100,000 most trafficked
sites.” Google’s business model essentially allows — and even
encourages — further intellectual property abuse.
 
Google’s core business is about search and advertising, which relies on
the content of other people and businesses. Google doesn’t own the
information from which it makes nearly all its revenue. Google is the
middleman of the information, which it takes for free. There is
obviously serious potential for harmful monopoly (some would say all
monopoly is harmful), even worse than Microsoft’s. At least Microsoft
produces software and makes money off the licensing. Microsoft owns
what it sells, but not Google.

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