Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    Is Google Evil?

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Columbia Journal September 2009

    Every 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.

    A 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.

    By 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.

    While 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?

    Obama’s 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.

    While Microsoft and Google both control a majority of their respective key markets, there are some real differences in how they got there.

    The 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.

    One 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 content.

    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 Calendar.

    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.


Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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