google: evil big brother or freedom fighter?

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The New York Times casts a wary eye on Google’s monopoly in search, online advertising and commerce in Google Casts a Big Shadow on Smaller Web Sites. I believe it is always dangerous when too much power is concentrated in one place, especially when it deals with critical aspects of freedom such as the flow of information and access to public discourse.

The article begins by showing how Nextag, an online comparison shopping site, suddenly lost 50% of its traffic — presumably the free variety — from Google’s search engine. As they get 60% of their traffic from Google, this was a huge hit on profitability as the self-appointed head of The Department of Control of Internet Traffic, Google, directed customers to different websites.

It should come as no surprise what Nextag had to do. They were then forced to double their spending on paid search and advertising in the Google network to make up for the lost traffic. Big monetary win for Google and a huge  loss for Nextag. Sound fair? It’s not.

“We had to do it,” says Mr. Katz, chief executive of Wize Commerce, owner of Nextag. “We’re living in Google’s world.” We may be living in Google’s world, but we shouldn’t be.

The US government allowed Microsoft to have a monopoly in operating systems with Windows, and that was bad enough. Many say it stifled real innovation in the computer software industry. Anyone who ever had to use Windows Vista knows that.

But Google controls 67% of the search market and 75% of search advertising revenue online. When our very freedom and independence involves our ability to access information in an open and objective manner, and our ability to run a business depends on fair access to internet viewers, Google’s monopoly control becomes more than dangerous. It is evil.

The article wants to reassure us that “Regulators in the United States and Europe are conducting sweeping inquiries of Google,” but somehow that just doesn’t impress me. The US government took Microsoft to court and a lot of good that did. So called “sweeping inquiries” are probably mostly sweeping any responsibility for regulating Google’s monopoly power under the rug.

MSNBC Cenk Rant: Internet Freedom In Danger

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks on his weekly Daily Rant/Cenk Attack segment on the Dylan Ratigan show on MSNBC explains the Google-Verizon anti-net neutrality deal that could destroy internet freedom.

“Being big is no crime,” write the authors, “but if a powerful company uses market muscle to stifle competition, that is an antitrust violation.” That means being big IS a crime if you’re TOO big, and Google is too big, so Google is a monopoly and they are illegal.

And when was the last time you saw a company not use marketing muscle to “stifle competition”? The notion that Google isn’t a monopoly because they don’t use their power to stifle their competition is laughable. Google’s too big, too rich, and it’s too easy to grease the palms of regulators who weasel out on their oversight responsibilities.

Insuring the open, uncensored, free and fair access to information on the Internet is vital for the protection of our civil rights under the constitution, and is a necessary condition for the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When information is manipulated and censored for commercial gain as it is with Google, this poses a serious threat to and diminution of our civil liberties.

So the government is focusing on life in Google’s world for the sprawling economic ecosystem of Web sites that depend on their ranking in search results. What is it like to live this way, in a giant’s shadow? The experience of its inhabitants is nuanced and complex, a blend of admiration and fear.

The relationship between Google and Web sites, publishers and advertisers often seems lopsided, if not unfair.

Unfair is right. I’ve lived in Google’s world of manipulated pay to play world of search for a decade, and the usual rules follow. The more money you spend to game the system, generally the better search results you will get. You can pay for professional SEO — which has become a huge cottage industry — where experts figure out the best ways to manipulate Google’s search in their favor.

The problem with SEO is that it doesn’t necessarily give Google what it says it wants — the most relevant information for the searcher. In fact, there is so much blatant manipulation of keywords to achieve rankings that the content of many of the largest media houses suffers. Writers write with one eye on rankings and pleasing the all-mighty algorithms instead of simply providing the highest quality information.

A good example of the dangers of Google’s monopoly power on search and how it can be manipulated by others as well as Google is discussed in How Google Is Helping the Gas Lobby Support Fracking at Truthout.com. It talks about the main themes of this article — that Google can be manipulated to distort important access to free and unbiased information.

Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell, wrote an important scientific paper critical of fracking, the new technology by which we are able to extract oil and gas reserves. Howarth’s enemies in the energy business took out smear ads against Howarth portraying him in a negative light, that display at the top of Google’s search pages whenever anyone searches for Howarth’s name. This is not supposed to happen.

According to Google’s own guidelines, paid search results should be clearly and unequivocally separated from unpaid search, but Google can’t quite get itself to adhere to its own stated principles. Paid ads are now put at the top, before unpaid results. Google states they are ads and uses a different background color, but that doesn’t cut it when they come first.

Many people don’t realize they are ads and click on them without thinking. I, and I’m sure many others, have clicked on the paid ads without thinking — even though we know they are paid ads. When I’m searching for something, I’m thinking about what I’m searching for. The burden shouldn’t be on me to bypass the paid ad section to get to unpaid search results.

 

The lure of profit is too strong, and that’s exactly the problem with giving Google an unregulated 67% monopoly in search. Truthout.com writes:

The ad, and the ability of industry to use Google ads for these purposes, raises important questions about the role that Google and other prominent search engines will have on important political and scientific discourse. Do Google and other companies have a responsibility to the public to consider the way their search engine can be used to advance the interests of certain industries? This method naturally empowers wealthy industries to dominate Google search results given their massive resources and vested financial interests in the way in which science is discussed in the public sphere. And the company does ultimately answer to shareholders and not to the public at large. Given this reality, what can we expect from Google and other corporate giants of the Internet world when it comes to providing valuable information that serves the public?

Good questions, to which we need specific answers from Google. But here’s the irony. Google has been running ads for the protection of Internet freedom for years. This one was taken from a 2006 posting.

This page is from the summer of 2006. For the latest news on network neutrality, please visit our Public Policy Blog.

A Note to Google Users on Net Neutrality:

The Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat. There’s a debate heating up in Washington, DC on something called “net neutrality” – and it’s a debate that’s so important Google is asking you to get involved. We’re asking you to take action to protect Internet freedom.

In the next few days, the House of Representatives is going to vote on a bill that would fundamentally alter the Internet. That bill, and one that may come up for a key vote in the Senate in the next few weeks, would give the big phone and cable companies the power to pick and choose what you will be able to see and do on the Internet.

Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.

Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative (202-224-3121) and let your voice be heard.

Thanks for your time, your concern and your support.

Eric Schmidt

Google has extensive policies in support of Internet freedom, and the insidious thing is that Google is once again fighting against the restriction of Internet freedom from government regulation and censorship around the world, including the fascist homeland security forces in the US. While this is good as far as it goes, it masks Google’s hidden agenda for manipulating Internet search for profit.

Google wants to appear to the world as a freedom fighter for Internet information, but blatantly manipulates the freedom of information by allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to buy ads placed at the top of search results. Anyone can see this is a gross violation of the freedom of information.

Josh Fox made a film, “The Sky Is Pink,” in which he questions Google’s biased search results and got smeared in a similar fashion by paid ad campaigns.

It’s an abuse…. They [Google] have to be conscious of the fact that it is hampering people’s reputations. And, worse, they are making money – in my case, quite a lot – from this. They should immediately cease the practice … because Google is profiting off the smearing of a renowned scientist and an Academy Award-nominated film.

google internet freedom

Google’s homepage 1998–1999 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concern, writes Michael Corcoran at Truthout.com,

. . . is not that disagreements should be not be publicized, but whether or not industrial lobbying groups – rather than scientists or the googling public – should be able to advance their arguments according to their ability to purchase the top spots on Google.

 Of course it is improper for Google to have this kind of power, and it needs to be stopped. Corcoran continues,

It simply cannot be ignored that the search engines that almost all Internet users use to find information are themselves the products of corporations seeking to maximize profits through the sales of ads and collection of user information. The reality is that corporations are increasingly controlling the Internet.

Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which analyzed the propaganda function of the mass media, has warned from the early days of the Web that “although the new technologies have great potential for democratic communication, left to the market there is little reason to expect the Internet to serve democratic ends.”

That should alarm everyone who values freedom. The fact is that the Internet is now dominated by large, multi-national corporations like Google whose support of Internet freedom is in direct conflict with their profit objectives. This is intolerable.

Even more alarming is Google’s stubborn silence on the issue of how it is allowing the blatant manipulation of information for profit.

Truthout.com end their article with a very disturbing indictment of Google.

Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, has complained that a large ad purchase her campaign made with Google was initially rejected by the company. Google claims the ad was turned away because it contained a censored obscenity and eventually decided to run the ad after some negative publicity, but the scenario further illustrates the way Google can determine what information reaches the public.

Google’s silence on these issues is troubling. If Google is mulling the complexities of this method of obtaining revenue, they are not making such deliberations public. “They are stifling public discourse, while turning a profit themselves,” Howarth said. “I have tried for over a year to complain to Google, but they have never responded to me.”

Several efforts to contact Google by Truthout also proved unsuccessful.

I like Google. They are a brilliant company with innovative products. But I draw the line at the freedom of information, which is a necessary function to protect our democratic freedoms and civil rights.

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