John Harris

Journalist & Author

Google: a tiger we mustn’t feed | John Harris

As Google’s claws bite ever deeper, its dominance of the web should be challenged

It’s the season of cyber-panic. On iPlayer, you can watch Adam Curtis tying together Ayn Rand, the crash of 2008 and early 20th century botany into a warning about computers threatening civilisation. The aftershocks of Nicholas Carr’s admirably impactful book The Shallows ripple on, spreading an uneasy suspicion that the internet is corroding our mental faculties. Last week Nicolas Sarkozy hosted the eG8 forum, dragging the technology industry’s big players to Paris, and lecturing them with a De Gaulle-esque sweep about the inviolable supremacy of governments, and the dangers of the online realm becoming “a parallel universe outside laws and morals”.

We all know the tropes: porn, privacy, the mortal danger of Facebook for kids, and apocalyptic fears about cyber-warfare. Talking of which: on Wednesday, 24 hours after the Pentagon served notice that it would now consider any deliberate cyber-attack by a foreign state an “act of war” (that is, an action worthy of military retaliation), news broke of another assault on Google email accounts, allegedly launched from China. The targets reportedly included “senior US government personnel”, whose across-the-board use of Gmail appears to make them vulnerable to this latest spurt of online mischief, based on “phishing” – that is, directing victims to divulge passwords via fake websites.

In response, Google urged its users to spend 10 minutes “taking steps to improve your online security so that you can experience all that the internet offers – while also protecting your data”. The American government, perhaps, might also instruct its employees to make things that bit more difficult for hackers by spreading their email accounts around a bit.

That, though, is not the way our world seems to work. We seem to accept it as something as inarguable as the weather, but Google now has a terrifying dominance of the world’s internet use. In Europe, it controls around 90% of the online search market. At the last count, Gmail had 193.3 million monthly users. In 2007 Google purchased DoubleClick, specialists in the technology whereby people’s web habits are tracked, and ads are targeted accordingly. Google also owns YouTube, Blogger and the social networking site Orkut. When it comes to ownership of the smartphone operating system Android, things get complicated, but Google is effectively in charge, having acquired Android Inc in 2005.

And so the list goes on. Google’s browser Chrome now accounts for 14.5% of European web use, and is on the up. As is Google’s apparent appetite for any technology business it can get its hands on: in the first 10 months of 2010 alone, it spent $1.6bn on new acquisitions. If you have ever raged against the stranglehold practised by Rupert Murdoch, bear one thing in mind: Google’s power now threatens to make him look like a village newsagent.

Rather than trying to put jump leads on increasingly impossible ideas about copyright enforcement, or somehow subjecting the web’s endless information flows to the edicts of domestic courts, it’s this issue that merits serious attention from the world’s governments. Sarko et al should take note: compared to the old fear that Microsoft might monopolise access to the web via its software (the spark for its epic tussle with the US department of justice), we are talking about something of a completely different order. Google has a shot not at control of the means to access information, but the information itself. Potentially all information, which is something worth panicking about.

There are glimmers of hope. In one of those turnabouts that defy satire, Microsoft is pursuing Google via the European commission, claiming that it unfairly promotes its own services via web searches. In Texas, antitrust investigations by the attorney general’s office are ongoing, triggered by websites’ complaints about their lowly Google rankings. Thanks to a judge in New York, there are now very serious doubts about Google’s quest to somehow digitise every book ever published (optimistically, it has already scanned 12m of them).

Meanwhile, there are rumblings about a possible watershed investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. Yesterday, Bloomberg ran a story with the headline “Google Antitrust Probe by US Could Take Years”, and paraphrased a renowned technology lawyer: “The agency is likely to examine whether Google is using its position in internet search to subdue rivals in adjacent markets with threats and jacked-up advertising rates.” It would certainly be a start.

In the meantime, some advice, not least for employees of the US government. Don’t feed the tiger. Think back to the frontier days of dial-up, when pluralism reigned. Have a look around for alternative email providers, search engines and video-sharing sites. You can find them using Google. For the moment.

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