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The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

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Render unto Caesar

How Google Came to Rule the Web

Google dominates the World Wide Web. There was never an election to determine the Web's rulers. No state appointed Google its proxy, its proconsul, or viceroy. Google just stepped into the void when no other authority was willing or able to make the Web stable, usable, and trustworthy. This was a quite necessary step at the time. The question is whether Google's dominance is the best situation for the future of our information ecosystem.

In the early days it was easy to assume that the Web, and the Internet of which the Web is a part, was ungoverned and ungovernable. It was supposed to be a perfect libertarian space, free and open to all voices, unconstrained by the conventions and norms of the real world, and certainly beyond the scope of traditional powers of the state. But we now know that the Internet is not as wild and ungoverned as we might have naively assumed back at its conception. Not only does law matter online, but the specifics of the Internet's design or "architecture" influence how the Web works and how people behave with it. Like Jessica Rabbit in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Internet is not bad-it's just drawn that way. Still, architecture and state-generated law govern imperfectly. In the People's Republic of China, the state clearly runs the Web. In Russia, no one does. States such as Germany, France, Italy, and Brazil have found some ways to govern over and above Google's influence. But overall, no single state, firm, or institution in the world has as much power over Web-based activity as Google does.

So Google, which rules by the power of convenience, comfort, and trust, has assumed control, much as Julius Caesar did in Rome in 48 B.C. Before Caesar, there was chaos and civil war, presided over by weak, ineffective leaders who failed to capture the support of the people or to make Rome livable. Like Caesar, Google has found its mandate to rule through vast popular support, even in the absence of a referendum. And like Caesar's, Google's appeal is almost divine. Because we focus so much on the miracles of Google, we are too often blind to the ways in which Google exerts control over its domain.

So how, exactly, does Google rule the Web? Through its power to determine which sites get noticed, and thus trafficked, Google has molded certain standards into the Web. Google has always tended to degrade the status of pornography sites in response to generic or confusing search terms, thus making it less likely that one will stumble on explicit images while rarely blocking access to such sites entirely. Google has ensured that the Web is a calmer, friendlier, less controversial and frightening medium-as long as one uses Google to navigate it.

Through its advertising auction program, Google favors and rewards firms that create sites that meet explicit quality standards set by Google, such as simple pages that load quickly, lack of flashy animation, and coherence in search terms that helps ensure users are not tricked into clicking on a pornography site when seeking travel advice. Google has limited access to sites that place malicious programs on users' computers. This fight against "malware" is one of the keys to keeping the Web worthy of users' trust and time. If too many sites infected users' computers with harmful software, people would gravitate away from the relatively free and open Web into restricted and protected domains, known as "walled gardens" or "gated communities," that seem less vulnerable to electronic pandemics. Google also, extremely rarely, directly censors search results when they are troublesome or politically controversial, or when the company determines that a firm or group is trying to rig the system to favor its site. When that happens, Google usually places some sort of explanation in the search results to explain and justify the policy.

Overall, these policies have the effect of cleaning up the Web, ensuring that most users have a comfortable experience most of the time. Google can usually achieve this goal without stooping to raw censorship. The net effect is the same, however, because the protections that we rely on, including "safe search," are turned on by default when we first access Google, and our habits (trust, inertia, impatience) keep us from clicking past the first page of search results. Google understands the fact that default settings can work just as well as coercive technologies. Overall, Google orders our behavior and orders the Web without raising concerns that it is overbearing. It's a brilliant trick.

Nothing about this means that Google's rule is as brutal and dictatorial as Caesar's. Nor does it mean that we should plot an assassination, as killing off Google might have the same effect on the state of the Web as Julius Caesar's death had on Rome: a return to unbearable chaos and fractured alliances. In fact, the institutions waiting in the wings to assume governance of the Web, such as commercial telecommunication companies and media conglomerates, are definitely less trustworthy than Google is today. In many ways, we should be grateful that Google governs so well. Google has made Web commerce and communication, stable, dependable, and comfortable. By hiding how it does all this behind its simple and clear interface, Google convinces us that it just knows how to make our lives better. We need not worry about the messy details.

But how did we get to this state of affairs? How was Google able to assume this role so quietly and profit so handsomely from it? What sorts of trouble is Google causing for states and firms? And how-if at all-should we consider regulating the regulator?

The Scope of Google

Google is sui generis. At its core, it's a Web search-engine service. The primary reason anyone uses Google is to manage the torrent of information available on the World Wide Web. But as the most successful supplier of Web-based advertising, Google is now an advertising company first and foremost. Its search function is why we visit Google. Advertising is what keeps it going. However, there were search-engine companies before Google, and several competitors still do just as good a job linking people to information as Google does. And there were Web advertising companies before Google, just as there are now other firms, such as Facebook, that try to link a user's expressed interest in subjects to potential vendors of goods and services that reflect those tastes. But there has never been a company with explicit ambitions to connect individual minds with information on a global-in fact universal-scale. The scope of Google's mission sets it apart from any company that has ever existed in any medium. This fact alone means we must take it seriously.

Google has expanded in recent years into a general media company because it delivers video and text to users, even if much of that content is hosted on other institutions' sites. Its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, the clear leader in hosting short videos contributed by users, made Google a powerful disseminator of video content. This role has put Google and YouTube at the center of major world events, such as the antigovernment protests in Iran in the summer of 2009 and the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008.

Since about 2002 Google has steadily added to the roles it plays in people's lives, thus complicating the Web's taxonomy. It now hosts e-mail for millions of users. Google purchased the innovative and free blog-hosting service Blogger in 2003. It runs a social networking site called Orkut that is popular in Brazil and India, but nowhere else. Google Voice offers a voice-over-Internet-provider (VoIP) that competes with Skype's long-distance Internet phone service. It facilitates payment for Web-based commerce through Google Checkout.

Google is also a software company. It now offers online software such as a word processor, spreadsheets, presentation software, and a calendar service-all operating "in the cloud" and thus freeing users from managing multiple versions of their files and applications on different computers, and easing collaboration with others. In 2008 Google released its own Web browser called Chrome, despite many years of collaborating with the Mozilla foundation in supporting the open-source Firefox browser. And in 2009 it previewed its Chrome operating system for cloud computing, a direct assault on Microsoft's core product, Windows. It hosts health records online. On top of all that, since its beginning in 2004, its Google Book Search project has scanned millions and millions of volumes and has made many of them available online at no cost, simultaneously appropriating the functions of libraries on the one hand and the rights of publishers on the other. In 2007 Google announced plans for a mobile phone operating system and attempted, but failed, to change the ways that the United States government allocates radio bandwidth to mobile companies in an attempt to open up competition and improve service. And since 2005 the company has been Googlizing the real world through Google Maps, Street View, and Google Earth, a service that allows users to manipulate satellite images to explore the Earth from above. Only one company does all that, so it does not even need a label beyond its increasingly pervasive brand name.

This diversity of enterprises has confused and confounded other firms that compete with Google. Because no other company, not even Microsoft, competes in more than a handful of these areas, it's also hard for regulators to get a sense of Google's market power. In most of these arenas, such as e-mail, applications, blogging, photo-image hosting, health records, and mobile-phone platforms, Google is far from the dominant player. In online video, out-of-print book searches, online advertising, and of course Web search, Google has such an overwhelming lead that other competitors can't hope to develop the infrastructure needed to compete with Google in the long run.

Google thus has been the victor in the winner-take-all race to serve as the chief utility for the World Wide Web. In 2010, in the midst of a massive two-year economic downturn that hampered every sector of the global economy and devastated some, Google was worth more than US$120 billion and made more than US$4 billion in total net income. More than twenty thousand people worked for Google in 2010, although the company shed a few thousand through layoffs in 2008.B /B

Friction

Because of its presence in a broad array of markets and its brazen unpredictability, many established industry players have taken aim at Google and have demanded either regulatory intervention to pressure Google or regulatory relief for themselves. When Google in 2007 made a strong case to the U.S. Federal Communication Commission that newly released radio spectrum should be licensed only to firms that promised openness in mobile-phone design and business practice, the major American telecommunication companies banded together to stifle and limit the proposal. When Google proposed collaborating with Yahoo in online advertising placement, U.S. regulators quickly squelched the plan because advertisers feared total market domination by the two companies, which would hold 90 percent of the search market in the United States. When Google moved to purchase the leading placement service for website banner advertisements, DoubleClick, national advertising companies demanded intervention-unsuccessfully. When Google refused to prevent YouTube users from potentially infringing copyrights and instead relied on the provisions of copyright law that protect service providers such as Google from liability, Viacom sued in a naked attempt to change the law. And when telecommunication companies that act as Internet service providers tried to alter how the Internet works by charging fees to services that might wish to have their content delivered faster-and thus downgrade service for those that didn't pay-Google lobbied to preserve "network neutrality." Google thus has made many powerful enemies in a very short period. Many of Google's positions correspond roughly with the public interest (such as giving empty support to network neutrality policy and "safe-harbor" exemptions from copyright liability). Others, such as fighting against stronger privacy laws in the United States, do not.

When confronted with questions about its dominance in certain markets, Google officials always protest that on the Internet, barriers to entry are low, and thus any young firm with innovative services could displace Google the way Google displaced Yahoo and AltaVista in the early days of the twenty-first century. With Google unable or unwilling to leverage its advantages though some sort of lockdown, such as holding users' content and data hostage with technology or exclusive contracts so that they must continue to use Google services, they point out that users could easily migrate to the next Google-like company. As Google's lawyer Dana Wagner says, "Competition is a click away."

Of course, that argument relies on the myth that Internet companies are weightless and virtual. It might be valid if Google were merely a collection of smart people and elegant computer code. Instead, Google is also a monumental collection of physical sites such as research labs, server farms, data networks, and sales offices. Replicating the vastness of Google's processing power and server space is unimaginable for any technology company except Microsoft. Wagner's argument about user behavior could be valid if boycotting or migrating from Google did not incur significant downgrades in service by losing the advantages of integration with other Google services.

Google's argument also ignores the "network effect" in communication markets: a service increases in value as more people use it. A telephone that is connected to only one other person has very limited value compared with one connected to 250 million people. YouTube is more valuable as a video platform because it attracts more contributors and viewers than any other comparable service. The more users it attracts, the more value each user derives from using it, and thus the more users it continues to attract. Network effects tend toward standardization and thus potential monopoly.

The network effect for most of Google's services is not the same exponential effect we saw with the proliferation of the telephone or fax machine. If only one person in the world used Gmail, it would still be valuable to her, because it can work well with every other standard e-mail interface. But if only a few people used Google for Web searching, Google would not have the data it needs to improve the search experience. Google is better because it's bigger, and it's bigger because it's better. This is an arithmetic, rather than geometric, network effect, but it matters nonetheless. Opting out or switching away from Google services degrades one's ability to use the Web.

It may seem as if I'm arguing that Google is a monopoly and needs to be treated as such, broken up using the antimonopoly legislation and regulations developed over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But because Google is sui generis, business competition and regulation demand fresh thinking. It's such a new phenomenon that old metaphors and precedents don't fit the challenges the company presents to competitors and users. So far, Google manages us much better than we manage Google. Just because Wagner's defense of Google is shallow does not necessarily mean that we would be better off severing the company into various parts or restricting its ambitions in some markets. But the very fact that Google is nothing like anything we have seen before both demands vigilance and warrants concern. That fact also means that there is no general answer to how competing firms or regulators should approach Google's ventures. Everything must be considered case by case and with an eye on particulars. "Is Google a monopoly?" is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should begin by examining what Google actually does and how that compares to what competitors do or might do in the future. That approach will give us a better sense of what the Googlization of everything means and what has already been done about it.

The Search for a Better Search

There is a broad consensus that Web search is still in a very pedestrian phase. Both Yahoo and Google generally work the same way, and neither offers consistently superior search results. People tend to choose one or the other platform based on other factors-habit, the default search service embedded in a browser, their choice of e-mail client, appearance, or speed. At most search-engine companies, the computers tend to take the string of text that users type into a box and scour their vast indexes of copies of Web pages for matches. Among the matches, each page is ranked instantly by a system that judges "relevance." Google calls its ranking system PageRank: links rise to the top of the list of search results by attracting a large number of incoming links from other pages. The more significant or highly ranked a recommending page is, the more weight a link from it carries within the PageRank scoring system. Each Web site copied into Google's servers thus carries with it a set of relative scores instantly calculated to place it in a particular place on a results page, and this ranking is presumed to reflect its relevance to the search query. Relevance thus tends to mean something akin to value, but it is a relative and contingent value, because relevance is also calculated in a way that is specific not just to the search itself but also to the search history of the user. For this reason, most Web search companies retain records of previous searches and note the geographic location of the user.

While this approach is standard, and works fairly well in most situations for most users, a number of search-engine companies have been working furiously to deepen the "thinking" that computers do when queried. Since 2008, we have seen the debut of a number of new search engines that offer a different way of searching and depend heavily on the ability to understand the context and purpose of the search query. And Google, understandably, refines and alters its search principles with regularity.

Cuil, which debuted ignominiously in 2008, was founded by a group of former Google employees. Its launch was marred by too much publicity and attention. The first users found the system terribly slow and fragile. Cuil boasts of searching a larger index of sources than either Google or Microsoft's search engine, Bing. It also claims to be able to conduct rudimentary semantic analysis of the potential results pages to assess relevance better than the popularity method of PageRank. By the summer of 2009, Cuil delivered consistently good results to basic queries, but no one seemed to notice. Most importantly, Cuil pledged not to collect user data via logs or cookies, the small files with identifying information that Google and other search engines leave in every user's Web browser, because it is more interested in what the potential results pages mean than what the user might think about. Cuil is a clever and innovative search service that has suffered from terrible business and public-relations decisions. It remains at best a niche player in the search-engine contest.

In early 2009, the eccentric entrepreneur and scientist Stephan Wolfram released what he called a "computational knowledge engine," Wolfram Alpha. By staging a series of small-scale demonstrations for the most elite Web thinkers in the United States, Wolfram was able to seed curiosity and attract attention for his service. Unlike a commercial search engine, Alpha is not so much designed to find pages and videos on the Web as to answer research questions by mining publicly available data sets. It does not even attempt to index Web sites. Its utility to users and advertisers, therefore, is narrow. But as a concept in knowledge management and discovery, it is potentially revolutionary. If you ask Alpha, "How many atoms are in a molecule of ammonia?" it will tell you the answer. It finds facts. It even generates facts, in a sense, by computing new information from different, distinct data sets. Wolfram Alpha is not intended to compete with Google in any way or in any market (although Google's Web search can answer the same question by directing users to the top link: a page from Yahoo Answers!). However, if it succeeds, Alpha will remove a small set of scientific queries from the mass of Google searches. Google will hardly notice-unless it decides to adopt elements of Alpha technology for its o