Point The Google Democracy
by Kevin Bunkley
Counterpoint Or the Next Monopoly?
by Sean Malone
After its Initial Public Offering — the first sale of stock by a company to the public — in 2004, Google has accumulated an infinity of o’s to its name and profit margin. As it grows, critics often warn of some Orwellian society in which Google unites with the government to penetrate every aspect of our lives, and everything is sold to us by a powerful “Big Google”. In actuality, Google is trying to make all the world’s information accessible. In the age of globalization, a bigger Google can only further plug America, and the rest of the world, into each other; When the company is allowed to operate, it makes life easier. Information is a tool and Google can’t be too powerful if it’s helping people to live.
It’s impossible to argue that a company that has made using the internet far more simple than it was, has become too big and too powerful. However, “Google’s mission to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ so charmingly visionary in a startup, now sounds to some people downright predatory,” wrote Rob Hof in a 2007Business Week piece. Viewed from a historical perspective, we see that corporate innovation is cyclical: IBM was at the front of the computer revolution, Microsoft at the integration age, and now Google is leading the internet phase.
It is true that Google’s market value and subsequently, market share, is growing and is now larger than Time Warner, Viacom, and The New York Times Company; so much so that Microsoft and Yahoo have banded together to compete. From Wired magazine’s June issue, we learn that a complex mathematical formula causes a continuous cycling of the advertisements that are being clicked, and opens it up to bidding amongst the companies that want our dollars. Stimulating competition for ad prominence is an economy in itself, and it put a hole in the traditional model of going to an agency to buy ads in newspapers or on the internet. Flattening the playing field has never been in the interest of too much power, but in the interest of advancing how commerce is conducted. In operating freely, Google came up with a way to save parts of the advertising industry before the executives on Madison Avenue did, and it’s a testament to the kind of reach the company has when it is undisturbed. It creates financial advantages in the modern economy without having to go to a middleman.
Google’s sole purpose is to provide information. It’s easy to see why their projects to digitize entire university libraries, mainstream books, and other print media are contested as being too accessible at no cost (sometimes known as the “Wikipedia syndrome”), but look at who Google’s toughest critics are: competitors and others who stand to gain nothing from the project. If Google were still a start-up search engine with a very small user base, would Microsoft and Yahoo throw a fit? Before agreeing to the Michigan Digitization Project, the University of Michigan filed suit on behalf of an author’s guild since the company was seemingly in violation of intellectual property rights. Michigan is now the biggest advocate of digital book scanning, as economist and Michigan librarian Paul Courant led the charge to keep up with Cornell, Stanford and Columbia allowing access to their library collections. He wrote, simply, on his blog, “I believe Michigan and Google are changing the world.”
In reality, Google only threatens the traditional information infrastructure that was devoid of balanced competition for almost ten years. Now, the rest are playing catch-up. There are legitimate concerns about privacy and information security, but the existence of other companies and government oversight keeps Google in check. There is a simple test for competition: if Google were too powerful, Microsoft would be kaput.
The growth of the company has in a way led to a smarter internet, and collaboration that has produced amazing technological devices and services. I would feel stupid and uninformed without Google Reader and Blogger software to occupy my internet-browsing time. And show me a university student anywhere in the country that wouldn’t rejoice at being able to pull up a hard-to-find book for a term paper on their personal computer. For college students, Google is not the elimination of university libraries but the addition of every other library in the world. Google’s services (Reader, Chrome, Blogger, Gmail, Docs) are too numerous to effectively contain. The day when one can check out a digital book from a library at Oxford from their living room is fast approaching.
Google may come uncomfortably close to high levels of government or eerily intrusive with its street-level viewing, but Google is a product and tool of the globalized world we created. Criticism of Google appropriately strikes deeper at our cultural unconscious than we may care to realize. Google tells us what we are searching for, and how society is behaving. Their information and products help us to live the way we choose to.
The fact that the major objections to Google’s might rest on the possibility of future abuses (e.g., of privacy) means that we have not yet reached the threshold for concern; and if we begin criticizing and regulating in the wrong way, we risk losing much more than we stand to gain.
Only a couple years back, search engines like Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and AOL were thriving. MapQuest was the handy sidekick when people went on vacation. People had one or more email accounts like Yahoo, Hotmail, and AOL. But now there is Google, a one-stop shop for information, leaving behind a digital Dust Bowl rolling down the information highway, gliding past abandoned buildings that used to house businesses, now reduced to entries into a list of “available properties” on Google’s Local Real Estate page. And that is why the top antitrust cops are not letting this new Goliath out of their sight. With Google’s share of searches close to 76% of the entire web, will something be done before a complete monopoly is a reality?
On any given day, you can store your next week’s meeting in Google Calendar, get the directions to your meeting on Google Maps, prepare your documents and essays in Google Docs, search for hotels on google.com, get your confirmation email in Gmail; all in a matter of minutes; not to mention all the while getting your phone calls and voicemails in Google Voice. This may seem convenient to have all in one place, but let us not forget the Wal-mart syndrome. Google is pushing itself into every aspect of the web, becoming the dominating force in cloud computing.
With every search we make or email we write, more information is stored about us on the web. Google also takes keywords from your sent and received mail and then compiles the information to direct the advertisements on the sides of the sites towards your alleged interests. While this may make the advertisements more directe∆d towards the searcher, even using keywords from your emails is a direct invasion of privacy. The question is not about convenience, but about where we are heading.
In June 2008, Google was talking with Yahoo about a search ad deal, but because the Justice Department raised objections, the deal did not go through. This deal would have given Google/Yahoo control over 92% of the search ad space on the web, also resulting in higher prices for users. Now, if we want to know where monopolies are formed, then we should start looking here. Though the deal didn’t go through, Yahoo recently signed with Microsoft in a search ad deal. In a recent interview, Google said that they were very interested in what will happen with regards to the new deal. Google’s antitrust chief Dana Wagner said that “competition normally brings good things to users.” Well, where is the competition? Yahoo and Microsoft have to team up just to get close to a third the market shares Google has.
According to CNN, Google received 78.5% of the search market this June. Now, this may not be Google’s fault necessarily. Since it is the default search engine of Mozilla Firefox, it may just have become habit and routine for users to use it. The applications that it presents are also convenient and widely used, like YouTube, but many of their applications can be found on the other various search engines. This new Google monopoly may not be intentional, but we are pushing ourselves into a corner with no way to get out. By creating everything you need in one place there is no need for anywhere else. Such consolidation has real implications: The framework of Google’s single sign-on accounts allow for many security and privacy flaws. Earlier this year, over 20,000 credit card records were exposed from being stored in a Google cache of an internet payment gateway that is no longer in service. And in May 2008, there was a similar problem involving bank records on a crimeware server being available through Google search. We cannot sacrifice privacy for convenience.
Some of the new Google applications have security flaws even without use of the program from the user. For example, the Google Presentation tool allows for signed–in Google users to have their name and gmail address taken by the website owner without the use of any special computer skills, and without conformation. This is a direct invasion of privacy. Google Docs allowed for private documents to be visible through the google search, due to a flaw in the software that changed some documents when multiple documents were selected to collaborative rather than private. A site getting this big is bound to make mistakes, and how big will the next flaw be as the company only becomes larger?
Though this may appear to be a simple question of “fixing the glitches,” the larger the company, the more room there is for error under its umbrella of different applications. Google, like many websites, inflated exponentially, and is not as prepared as it should be. If we distribute the site’s many applications back into the web instead of just going to the same place, we have more people with jobs, and more people monitoring their parts of the World Wide Web. What we all need to understand is that in this day and age of ever growing knowledge and technology things we don’t know enough about can hurt us in the long run. Considering the wager we have made with capitalism, allowing for and encouraging robust competition is the best way to keep giants on their toes.
About the Issue
Point author: Kevin Bunkley graduated from The University of Michigan in 2008, and worked as an editorial columnist for The Michigan Daily. He has since discovered that Google and the rest of the job market is not friendly to History majors. Later this year he will go to work in Washington, D.C. for very little pay and the thrill of adventure. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he spends his time regretting his choice of a career path, and missing the world of a liberal college campus.
Counterpoint author: Sean Malone is a Senior English Major with a Classic civilizations Minor at the University of Michigan. His interests are Writing, Reading, Music, Greek Mythology, and Roller Coasters. In the future he hopes to be a writer, but which field is not yet determined. While he stills thinks Google is a helpful resource now, he hopes that this article will help to keep large businesses in check and make people aware of the cost of convenience.
Edited by: Eric Eaton
Cover by: Meirav Gebler