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Rory Cellan-Jones

Google, Microsoft and calls of 'web bully'

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 17 Mar 09, 12:07 GMT

Is Google bad for the web? A question which would have been unthinkable a year or so back. But, in some people's views, the search giant is heading down the path from cheeky and popular internet upstart to over-bearing bully.


For those who advance this case, the charge sheet is getting longer by the day - Google is not only too dominant in both search and online advertising, it is moving into all sorts of other areas too. Last week alone, three announcements stirred the wrath of critics who seem to be growing in confidence.

YouTube screenFirst, there was the row with the PRS over the licensing of songs for YouTube, with Google raising the stakes by blocking access to all professional music videos on YouTube.

Sure, there were many who thought the songwriters were in the wrong, trying to extract a hefty fee rather than just seeing YouTube as a useful platform. But there was also a vocal(?!) group who saw this as the latest example of bullying by a giant firm eager to profit from other people's content without paying them a fair share.

Then there was the plan to introduce behavioural advertising to Google - or rather what the firm described as an "interest-based advertising beta". The scheme to give users adverts that reflected their interests, based on data Google collects about our web habits, caused plenty of disquiet amongst privacy campaigners. EU regulators, who've already been asking questions about Google's data retention policy, may take a close look at this scheme.

Finally, there was the announcement about Google Voice, which sounds like a useful service giving you one central phone number, and translating voicemail messages into text. But that could wipe out a number of promising start-ups - and is seen by critics as more evidence that Google is just getting too powerful, and hence is now damaging the web and web users.

Among those pressing this case most vigorously is an organisation called ICOMP. I called them yesterday while researching a story about the long legal battle between Google and the luxury goods firm LVMH over the auctioning of terms like "Louis Vuitton" for advertising purposes. David Wood, a Brussels-based lawyer who speaks for ICOMP, told me:

"The concern is that as Google's market power grows, brand owners will have nobody else to deal with. It will also install bad practices in the market - so anybody else coming in will find it difficult to compete against the market leader and its bad practices."

But no sooner had I got off the phone to Mr Wood than a call came in from someone who had some interesting information about ICOMP and who described it as "a Microsoft front". The lobby group's website says it was founded by a number of firms who "have come together to express a shared commitment to a Transparent and Competitive Internet that is responsive to consumer interests and law-abiding".

The site isn't exactly transparent about ICOMP's funding, though it does list Microsoft as a member. But when I got back to Mr Wood, he confirmed that the organisation was "largely" funded by the software giant - Google's biggest rival.

That doesn't mean that the regulators will ignore the ever-louder grumbles about Google from web rivals and privacy campaigners, but there's a delicious irony in the charge being led by Microsoft, the company which has itself been in the sights of EU competition officials for at least a decade.

Google's millions of users probably aren't too worried by any of this - after all, they are getting more and more from the business for nothing more than their willingness to see some advertising. Then again, Windows users had precious few complaints about the power of Microsoft - but the regulators took the view that it was in everyone's long-term interest to clip the wings of Bill Gates' business.

Will history repeat itself?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Google - the internet's Tesco.

  • Comment number 2.

    Then again, Windows users had precious few complaints about the power of Microsoft

    That's just not true. The unfriendliness and unreliability of Windows has long since entered the public consciousness as running joke; computers are unhelpful the way mother-in-laws are unfriendly, and that's entirely MS's fault.

  • Comment number 3.

    Can someone please confirm for me my understanding of one aspect of the Youtube/Google vs PRS situation and the taking down of the videos?

    I have seen it written that the previous agreement has expired and therefore Youtube had no right to allow access to these videos.

    If this is correct, surely blocking access was the responsible thing to do?

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that Google is definately the 2nd coming of Microsoft! They will exploit the situation to the fullest extent until the legal eagles put a stop to it. But until that day expect to see plenty more of Google wealding it's power and building it's ever increasing monopoly across the web but who can blame them? It may not be fair, but that's business. As with everything there are alternatives that can be used instead of Google but they have become the standard for many because they have simply been the best at what they do. Which is more than can be said for Microsoft!
    http//www.freenation.org.uk
    The domination of MS boils down to lazy consumerism combined with a full on commercial assault from the MS sales team!

    However, if you look for alternatives there is bound to be something better just waiting to be found, as with MS Windows.

    There better and even free operating systems that come come complete with browsers and other desktop applications. seek and ye shall find!

  • Comment number 5.

    If Microsoft really wanted to hurt Google, they could just make IE8 block Google's ads.
    It must be pretty trivial, there are firefox add-ons that do the same. And they already block pop-ups, why not sponsored search listings?

  • Comment number 6.

    Don't forge the massive increase in fees for using Google Checkout. Google have greatly increased their merchant fees, rather suspiciously to exactly the same level as paypal. That struck me as somewhat suspicious - I am sure their costs are not identical, so to increase charges to exactly the same level seems like price fixing to me.

  • Comment number 7.

    @SewerSide - That approach would be total suicide for IE8 as a product. There are far too many sites on the web which rely on Google Ads for their revenue stream for Microsoft to block ads.

    All that would occur is that thousands of content-providers would simply reciprocate by blocking IE8 users and providing links to download alternative browsers. Not to mention the dim view that the EU anti-trust courts would take of such a practise.

    Ads are a necessary facet of the online economy, and if users wish to have access to high-quality, free content then ads are the payoff.

  • Comment number 8.

    We need to get this in context re: Microsoft, monopolies and anti-trust.
    Google do not have a monopoly on the web. They don't even have a de facto monopoly on search (53.6% market share, August 2007).
    Microsoft are not only a 'convicted monopoly' but the anti-trust suit against them found that they used that monopoly to give their own products an unfair advantage.
    Simply creating a product similar to that of another company does not mean you are unfairly leveraging your so-called monopoly. This is just competition, and capitalism. The 'promising start-ups' will have to compete, or die. That's the way the commercial world works.
    People love to 'stick it to the man', but in this instance I can see nothing that Google has done wrong.
    The less said about 'behavioural advertising' the better though :)

  • Comment number 9.

    andywg,

    Yes, the agreement expired.

    What google did was offer the PRS half of what it had been paying previously, then released a Press Release saying PRS was being unreasonable.

    It also spun the idea that it was being forced into this position by the might of the record companies, when in reality the PRS is a small (relatively speaking), non-profit making society owned and run by the writers.

    Google wasn't forced into suspending access for UK users at all. Under the way these agreements work, the old agreement can stand while the parties negotiate.

    However, Google wanted to FORCE PRS members into a corner so they could increase their profits.

    The really sad side of the whole affair is that the media, completely missing the point, has done little if anything to support the BRITISH society, and has rather taken the side of the US software giant - very supportive of them.

  • Comment number 10.

    It was obvious years ago to all those with half a brain and just a balanced amount of cynicism that the WWW would become the baby of the mass corporations.

    It was screamingly clear that it would not be the utopia talked about by the geeks of Slashdot.

    And so this has proved to be true.

    In the long run the internet will be owned for all intents and purposes by one company. It may be Google, it may be someone else, but it will happen.

    These companies already have a strangle hold on the web, supported by an increasingly invasive and aggressive advertising system.

    The signal that this trend has become irreversible will be when one of the massive players buys Wikipedia.

  • Comment number 11.

    #8

    I'm a fan of Google, use it everyday, but lets get real here.

    "Google do not have a monopoly on the web. They don't even have a de facto monopoly on search (53.6% market share, August 2007)."

    Monopoly is not always a bad thing, but 53.6% is a monopoly by any definition! One good one is "a monopoly exists when a specific individual or enterprise has sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it".

    And August 2007 is a very out-of-date figure - it's more than that now, 63% in the USA, 90% in the UK, 81% in India, 91% France, 89% brazil, etc. Only in Russia and SE Asia is Google not the dominant search engine.

    To check this, I searched in Google for "Google market share web searches 2009"!

  • Comment number 12.

    What about Apple? Monopoly in its own right.

  • Comment number 13.

    Let's get one thing straight. Google is the de-facto search engine in Europe, 90% market share, but in my book dominance!=monopoly. Other search engines are one click away, our access to them is not restricted in any shape or form. We can't accuse Google of being a monopoly. Occasionally, I try other search engines, but they just don't do it for me.

    I do agree that Google is making it difficult for small start-ups to enter the market. I think it's pretty much pointless to expect to get rich with a brand new web technology at the moment, Google will implement the same or a similar idea and they will get all the customers. However, I wouldn't describe them as a "bully". They are in the business of making money out of the Web, and we can't blame them for increasing their range of products. We can argue all day long that they are hurting smaller companies, but I can't see anything illegal.

    Re #10: Google or any other company couldn't just go shopping and buy Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a non-profit organisation financed with donations. How do you buy a charity? Buying Wikipedia would be like buying Free Software Foundation. I'm afraid you got that one wrong. Those organisations aren't for sale...

  • Comment number 14.

    Google wins the Internet, again.

    Everyone's friendly little web search engine has taken a liking to the ways of the banker and strives to make as much money as possible and despite their campus looking like a friendly, moral educing environment, greed must play a factor.

    Google and Mircosoft are both gargantuan companies always willing to expand their glorious empire at the expense of others.
    It is obvious consumer choice is being cornered off into the hands of these giants.
    (Types this using a Microsoft mouse, OS and IE8 with a Google tab beside it).

    Has the war already started?
    I bet the Internet wins.

  • Comment number 15.

    #13

    Wikipedia - True as far as it goes and it would be difficult to replicate it exactly. Who would bother? But Google does have to financial muscle to set up a rival funded by advertising (taking PD material from Wikipedia and rewriting it) which could overtake Wikipedia, especially if it avoided their problems with vanity rewrites and malicious editing.

    Look what they are doing with Google Books - they reached an agreement with the US publishers and authors last October to put more and more books online, disarming their lawsuit. Huge implications.

    Again, not necessarilly a bad thing if it enables researchers like me easier access to scarce out-of-print books with very limited financial potential. But it'll end the historic reprint industry and hit some specialist antiquarian booksellers.

    So, while I'm generally a fan of Google I think I'd want to count my fingers after shaking hands with them...

  • Comment number 16.

    I trust Google far more than I trust Microsoft. Google have advanced the web tremendously up until now, whereas Microsoft has largely been holding it back.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yes, Google is becoming too powerful. But while they're all cute and change their logo on St. Patrick's day, and offer most of their services for free, most people won't care.

  • Comment number 18.

    FYI #13:
    Google already has a rival to Wikipedia: http://knol.google.com/


    And Google is already trying to make money out of Wikipedia, when you search for Wikipedia, you are offered to search it again via Google, hence you'll see Google adverts. This happens for all big sites.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Gurubear

    You are either one of three things...a PRS employee, an indie artist or someone who just hates google.

    Most people know that the PRS are not unlike a bunch of thugs. Ask anyone who has tried playing a radio in their shop.

    They got what they deserved and the sooner the insane amounts of money stop being paid to the music industry the better.



    On the google thing.

    What I think that google are demonstrating is that microsoft never head complete domination over the computer software sector like some were saying. Google is making great products and microsoft are continuing to make very poor ones.

    Eventually that has caught up with microsoft, and if google start making bad software it will catch up with them too and we will all move on again.

  • Comment number 21.

    Google is so successful because it listens to what the user needs, then supplies in a way that is both efficient and also fair to all users. That is why it will supersede Microsoft and other self-serving organisations. For as long as Google focusses on people serving I believe it will succeed. I hope it continues and doesn't go bad like others have gone who became greedy.

  • Comment number 22.

    Yeah, cause every time Google launches a new product they immediately take over that market and rule, levereging their market power to squash all other players... Nope, they don't, they have had many failures, so can hardly be called a monopoly, especially when the competition is a single click away, and when so many of their services have open escape routes.

    Hey Gurubear, you were almost sounding convincing there for a moment, then you went and blew it with the Wikipedia comment. Buy-out a not-for-profit foundation running open-source software with CC licensed content? Really it just proves your mind-set is still stuck in the past and you just don't get the new model.

  • Comment number 23.

    Whats the problem they are just trying to monopolise the internet i thought they already owned it anyway.

  • Comment number 24.

    It's strange that the BBC tech writers seem to get their directions from Redmond. I thought that it was just the technology side of the BBC which was heavily influenced by Microsoft.

    Microsoft have been waging a PR war against Google for some time now. It really picked up steam once their bid for Yahoo! fell through (for which Microsoft must be truly thankful in the present economic climate).

    Having one monopoly with a 90% + share of it's markets harp on about another monopoly with a lower share of it's key markets seems a little strange.

    In my opinion monopoly is never a good thing but the difference between Google and Microsoft is that Google is commited to open standards and use them freely in their products. There is no lock-in with Google. If you don't like what they do you are free to go elsewhere at any time. This forces Google to actually be better than the competition, not something you can say for Microsoft.

    In regard to the Youtube / PRS thing. The PRS are clearly run by people who do not understand that with an increasing cake a smaller slice still works out for the people they represent. But then the PRS are very much a part of the last century. They represent, despite their claims, only the largest artists, ignoring new talent despite profiting from that new talent's plays on places like Youtube.

    A few years ago, there was an issue with the imposition of royalties for music videos played on TV. That was sliced through by the larger artists waiving royalties to get back on to the TV. These artist understood that music videos were promotional material and that they were suffering because of an attempt to leverage a royalty. Youtube is a promotional tool for artists and right now, because of the PRS, artists worldwide are losing not just direct revenue but indirect revenue.

    It's time for media to learn to live in this century. If they do, there are new profits awaiting.

 

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