Is Google Evil?
Alan Zisman (c)
2009 First published in Columbia
decade or so, it seems, some computer industry giant becomes the new
monopoly, generating more than its fair share of fear and loathing
among people uneasy with its power.
Way back in 1973, in an era
when a business cliché was ‘no one ever got fired for deciding to buy
from IBM’, that company was ruled to be in violation of the US’s
Sherman Act in attempting to create a monopoly in the computer market.
decade later, IBM’s entry into the then-new personal computer market
created a new standard; IBM’s new-found fear of being perceived as too
powerful led to the growth of hordes of imitators making
‘IBM-compatible’ personal computers. By the end of the 1980s, IBM was
just one of many vendors of these sorts of systems, ultimately passing
its personal computer business to the Chinese Lenovo.
supplying the operating system for all those IBM-compatible systems,
Microsoft grew to become the next technology monopoly. In 1999, US
District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that the company ‘enjoyed
monopoly power’ in the market for personal computer operating systems.
In 2001 a series of curbs were imposed on the company. The European
Community has continued to investigate Microsoft to this day.
Microsoft continues to hold the largest percentage of the market for
personal computer operating systems and office suite software, some
have argued that the company’s products have become increasingly
irrelevant, as the real action has shifted to the Internet. If your
predominant use of a computer is to go online, it hardly matters if
you’re running a Windows system, a Mac, or Linux: the Web is the Web.
And for increasing numbers of people, access to the Internet is mediated by Google.
So is Google the next Microsoft?
anti-trust chief, Christine Varney thinks it might be. Last year, she
was quoted as saying: "For me, Microsoft is so last century. They are
not the problem." Google, however, "has acquired a monopoly in Internet
online advertising." Apparently, the US Justice Department is looking
at Google to determine whether to start anti-trust proceedings.
Microsoft and Google both control a majority of their respective key
markets, there are some real differences in how they got there.
Microsoft anti-trust hearings in the late 1990’s included witnesses
testifying about Microsoft putting pressure on computer manufacturers
to ensure that they only sold systems running Windows. Internet
Explorer gained market share as a web browser because it came
pre-installed on all those millions of Windows systems, to the
exclusion of competing products.
In contrast, nobody preinstalls
Google. And with an informal corporate motto of ‘Do no evil’, many
users have a warm and fuzzy feeling for the company and its products.
But Google is a publicly traded corporate entity with a duty to
maximize shareholder profits. And it is expanding into all sorts of
online areas beyond its original focus of Internet search.
of those has been Google Books- a project to scan millions of pages of
books, making the resulting text accessible online. Since Google had
neither limited themselves to books in the public domain nor bothered
getting the permission of authors or publishers, the result was a
lawsuit from the Author’s Guild and book publishers. In the end, Google
settled out of court, but the settlement leaves many nervous that it
enshrines Google in the role of controller of this new source of online
Newspapers and news services are similarly nervous
about Google’s abilities to make their content available. A local
non-profit recently discovered that application forms they were
assessing had been indexed by Google, making applicants’ personal
information available in search results.
Cars with video cameras
mounted on top have been busy driving up and down city streets
world-wide, adding Street View images to Google Maps and Google Earth,
raising privacy concerns.
The New York Times’ David Carr raised
concerns about the extent of Google’s presence in his digital life to
CEO Eric Schmidt. Schmidt suggested the real question should be “How
are we doing? Are our products working for you?”
I too have
entrusted Google with my digital life. I go there for search multiple
times a day and trust that the results are free from company censorship
and bias- even when I searched for “Google evil” in preparing this
column. I get driving directions from Google Maps. My email and
contacts are in Google Mail, while my appointments are in Google
It’s convenient- I can access them on any computer anywhere I go. I’m just hoping that Google will ‘do no evil’ with my life.
The jury is out. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.