Monday, 22 March 2010

Is Google too Big? Size isn't important, it's what you do with it that counts

There's no doubt that Google is the "Ford" of the day, pioneering a new industry which is changing our lives on a fundamental level. With this in mind, it was only a matter of time before this monopolistic driving of our destinies was called to question.

I recently attended a debate held by Spiked which asked the question "Has Google got too big?"

As a debate, it was relatively tame, given that no one person was strongly on the side of either "yes" or "no". However, this was due mainly to the complexity of the question, so as a discussion, it became rather in depth.

Size Doesn't Matter

Proponents of Google tried to void the argument, pointing out that the use of the adjective "big" was irrelevant, and that size had no implications, and that we should be asking ourselves whether they are "good" or "evil". While this is true, there's no doubt that Google's size is intimately connected to its "morality".

Legally in the European Union, competition laws state that a company should "compete on its merits". Now, law is pretty complex, but from my understanding, this should technically forbid a company using its own assets to put itself at an advantage; as a Google example, manipulating search results to put itself higher. If anything, this would be far too obvious and one would expect Google to use much more sophisticated and subtle techniques to manipulate its advantage, if it wanted to.

With Google having its fingers in so many online pies, it has a kind of power that is not directly proportional to its size. The possibilities presented by the data it collects combined with the sway it has in the public arena are largely unexplored. Really, its size is irrelevant. It could fire all but a few of its employees tomorrow and still be capable of some truly world-changing actions.

Knowledge is Power

Many people are concerned with Google's supposed disregard for privacy, but while this is a concern, there is more to worry about here. Rather than how it might customise the experience of individuals, we should be thinking about what it could do with this tremendous amount of data if it used it to analyse or even manipulate society as a whole.

With such an extensive array of demographic data, Google could easily draw some fairly accurate pictures or even predictions of society. This may have unforeseen implications. Analysis of such an immense cross section of the population, its habits, its fears, its preferences, its cultures, its desires, its beliefs, its strengths, its weaknesses, and much more, could reveal revelations.

We've already seen how Google Maps and Google Street putting information in the public view can create controversy. These are single services. Analysing the relationships of the data they have available, Google could use this information to reveal unfairness, incompetence, conflicts of interests, corruption, or worse, that could have devastating consequences for those involved, or even put those affiliated with Google at a political advantage.

With growing data about resources and their usage, combined with complex analysis tools and a whole world worth of technical data and reports, Google could easily obtain scientific advantages.

Worst of all, is their potential political influence. Even now, before their entry into the world of media, they could use their knowledge of current events and news to undermine government authority, manipulate opinions, actions, and even votes, making the political spin of the movie Wag the Dog seem like child's play.

Innovation

There was much discussion at the debate about Google's level of innovation, how it is intimidating because there is so little innovation elsewhere, and how they knocked Microsoft off their perch with this, rather than anti-competition legislation. Therefore it should not be down to laws to challenge Google's dominance, instead, it would be better to see be more newcomers to challenge it (and the laws are ineffective anyway).

I would have to agree with this. It's not outside the realms of possibility that another company can come along and take Google down a peg or two. Let's not forget Facebook, the number 2 site in the world, and the fact that in some areas of the world, Google is barely used.

Google should be praised for their innovation and not penalised for it with petty, jealous rules which stunt development and progress. Yet at the same time, we should be extremely wary of the power it can bestow on itself with such innovation.

It seems Google finds itself in this unique position because of innovation and ingenuity. The power is no longer with those who take it by irrelevant means of violence, guilt, social manipulation or political popularity. About time, too.

"The empires of the future are the empires of the mind" - Albert Einstein



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