This week Google celebrates its 25 year-birthday and during that period the company has grown into a juggernaut that knows and stores everything about us, and is present everywhere. In a series of articles, we will discuss the power of Google, the success factors, the growing criticism and Google’s prospects for the coming years.
1. How Google grew into the dominant company it is today.
Part 4 of this series addresses the criticism that Google is increasingly facing.
Google’s success is not just due to a better search engine; but also to the smart distribution and the sometimes tough methods to thwart and push out competitors. But the mentality has also changed; once started as an idealistic company, with the slogan ‘don’t be evil’, it has now become a tough, ruthless company that makes life difficult for competitors, forces them out of the market or denies its high principles in order to gain access to a certain market (China).
While in the early years people were mainly praising Google because it was so easy to search, nowadays there is increasing criticism of Google’s power, and in particular the way in which it deals with disinformation, privacy and user data. and the way in which it keeps (potential) competitors from the market.
Google was started by the two idealistic students Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Above all, they did not want to become like Microsoft, which they saw as a huge juggernaut that crushed the competition and used all kinds of devious tactics to thwart others and keep them out of the market. They had a modest ambition: ‘to make all the world’s information easily available to everyone’.
But gradually, traits that resembled a large company that does what it wants began to emerge. The desire of investors to finally see a return, around the year 2010, played a major role in this. Google had to make money, at all costs.
It started with trampling on copyright; Google wanted to make all texts, including all books and scientific research, available to the world, and it felt it had the right to share this information without having to pay the author for it. The authors obviously did not agree with this, but by simply doing so, Google has now acquired the right to index and display short excerpts from books.
Bow to China
Google also received a lot of criticism when it had built in 2018 a special version of its search engine that faithfully followed the censorship rules of the Chinese government. Google showed a white screen for search terms that the Chinese government did not like, such as “Falun gong”, “Taiwan” and “Tienanmen uprising”, and dissident data was reportedly passed on to the Chinese government. When this became known, a storm of criticism arose, after which Google quickly refrained from a censored Chinese version (and the Chinese search engine Baidu quickly conquered the Chinese market).
The last major lawsuit by the US government against a tech company took place 25 years ago. The victim at the time was Microsoft. The irony is that now, 25 years later, the US government has launched another major lawsuit against a tech company, but now it concerns Google itself, the company that never wanted to be like Microsoft…
The exclusivity contracts that Google concludes with Apple and Samsung, among others, ensure that competitors do not gain a foothold. For example, Android manufacturers must display a Google search widget prominently on their phones. In 2018, the European Commission fined Google €4.34 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules. Now users in Europe can select the search engine they want, but most users take the quickest route and choose the search engine that already has a 90 percent market share. And to change the default search engine on Android, it takes as many as 15 taps.
In addition, reviews from local search engines such as Yelp have been deliberately omitted from the search results in favor of our own reviews. Yelp won a lawsuit over this, but by then Google had already conquered the market.
Disinformation and privacy
Google knows everything about us, from location to search preferences, from device use to your travel movements. It keeps track of which keywords you use, which websites you visit, your location and how many searches you perform. Every second, Google processes an estimated 60,000 searches and supplements them with information from Gmail, YouTube and Chrome.
That is problematic, and the European Commission in particular is introducing legislation that should limit the collection of data and protect European citizens against violations of their privacy. The European Union is currently taking the lead, but it looks like other countries will follow.
A final point of criticism is Google’s business model itself. The advertising model does not produce good content in the long term, because Google benefits from keeping the user busy for as long as possible and showing as many advertisements as possible. In a really good search engine you only search once (and you only see ads once). But Google wants to show you an ad first; and then shows what you want to see. Not everyone likes this and other search engines and ChatGPT in Bing try to address this by arriving at the right answer more quickly. But although these search engines are, objectively speaking, better, Google’s power is still too great for these alternatives to really pose a threat to Google.