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Google’s Era Coming to an End?

I read about Google’s decision to change its ranking algorithm to favor “authorized” content providers where I usually read about new things:  in the newspaper, over breakfast.   That link goes to the New York Times.  Here is a link to Google’s official announcement. It’s been almost 20 years since I first surfed the Web and almost 40 years since I first logged in to a computer network, and still, I read dead trees.

Tech leviathans come and go.  There was IBM in the 1960s and 1970s, Microsoft in the 1980s and 1990s, and for about the last decade, there has been Google.   (Or, if you prefer, there was Ma Bell, then the breakup, then the gradual reassembly of the old system, and now Skype and its competitors.)  IBM re-invented itself; Microsoft is not what it once was; now, it’s Google’s turn.  In other words, my reaction to Google’s announcement differs somewhat from Deven’s.  Google is just another tech leviathan now becoming something else.  Something a little less exceptional, and a little more politically ordinary.

Was anyone still holding on to some idealized view of the Internet as a “pure” information medium, and Google and the idea of “search” as benign gateways to and curators of its contents and flow?  I hope not.  (I may well be wrong.)  I searched the phrase “Golden Age of the Internet” (on Google, of course), and I came up with references from more than 5 years ago, as well as references from 2012.  Whenever that Golden Age was (some might argue that it ended in 1994), if it ever existed, it’s clear that the Golden Age has passed us by.  The Internet has long been well on its way to becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Media, just another big private company massaging data (“our” data) for its own benefit and for the benefit of those other companies with the market caps and voices loud enough to matter.  In telecommunications law and policy, this has been an open secret for some time; that’s what the “net neutrality” battles have been about.  On the “content” side, that is, copyright and trademark-related material,  Siva Vaidnyanathan was the first person to really make a pointed case for this, I think, but even Siva, today, sometimes seems willing to accept the idea that Google (the suite of tools, not the company)  is an OK technology so long as we all understand how it really works, and who it really works for.   Critical transparency for all.

Is critical transparency enough?  Google’s copyright announcement is, I think, a larger camel’s nose in a darker tent.  I can’t *not* use Google, or Bing, or any other search engine; functionally, there is no alternative right now to finding many if not most things on the Web, or on the Internet.  I can, in theory, simply give up on the Internet, or abandon most of its mythology, and find what I think I really need to find in the dead tree version of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or even, heaven forfend, in books — printed books.  I could wait for the next big thing — post-Google – to emerge.  Would anyone care to tell us all what that is?  Google itself was hip and kind of subversive when I first used it in 1998 [meta note:  nb. my clever way of repeatedly insinuating my credibility as a skeptical early adopter].  For the moment, however, I have the options in front of me.

Once upon a time, maybe a decade ago, I could hold on to the idea of one kind of so-called “competition” — don’t like the online news?  Go read what’s on the news stand — but I think that era is past.  For the last several years, as print has slowly receded into its own niche, the Internet *has become* the competition. “The Internet” is as always a metaphor; in this case, it’s a metaphor for search.  Search gives us the people’s news, news that we find, news that we make, news that we write — that’s been the mythology, and we’ve believed it.  The editors at the Times show me what *they* think is important, and my cable company packages channels that *they* choose (allegedly pursuant to their “First Amendment” speech rights – but that’s a slightly different post).  Yes, I know that news doesn’t come from nowhere.   News itself isn’t the point, or the only point; this generalizes:  music, film, software.  Poetry.  Museum collections.  Recipes.  Fashion advice.  Deep truths of humanity.

Google says:  It is not removing sites from its search rankings.  It is merely using complaints about serial copyright infringement as a “signal,” where the result of the signal is to push accused infringers lower in the rankings.   That’s true in a technical sense, but technical is never enough; Google’s position is a bit too clever for me.  One way to look at this new system is that it displaces public copyright law — claims, allegations, proof of facts, litigation, judgment, accountability — with “Google Law.”  If a copyright claimant meets Google’s algorithmic burden of proof, then the algorithm adjudicates the claim, and there is a Google remedy.  The accused infringer doesn’t go offline; the accused infringer still has an address (or, more likely, addresses). But the accused infringer is punished in precisely one way that the claimant wants; the claimant “wins” the case.  And no one, other than Google itself (in some broad corporate sense) knows what has happened, that it has happened, or when it has happened. 

As someone who writes and thinks a lot about fair use, and with acknowledgements to people who have made closely related claims before (Julie Cohen, Frank Pasquale, Brett Frischmann), this strikes me as a clever way to “privatize” (and limit) fair use; Google’s system is a step toward a perfect world of privatized, secret copyright liability — and not “strict” liability (i.e., liability based on causation, but not based on fault), but “absolute” liability (liability without causation).  I don’t think that the true pirate sites are engaged in fair use, but there is no reason to expect that the claims, and the data, and Google’s use of that data, will differentiate (or can differentiate) between plausible fair use claims — which are out there, even for music and film — and real piracy.  What happens when the recording and motion picture industries learn that if they generate more credible-sounding complaints, the more success they have in pushing objectionable websites lower in Google’s rankings?

The motion picture folks and the recording industry folks who have pushed Google to do this say that they are protecting the interests of “creators” (i.e., trained, professional creators) and the jobs that “creators” have and that they support.  That claim is both empirically and philosophically weak, for reasons that I have written about before.   At best, the claim is defensible solely with respect to the present forms of the so-called “creative” industries — which are, by no means, the only or best forms that these can take (or have taken).   But I understand why it appeals to the casual, uncritical reader.  I suspect that Google doesn’t care too much about “creators” as such.  Instead, I think that Google is looking down the legislative road at new versions of the SOPA and PIPA legislation that failed to clear Congress earlier this year, and Google is trying to position itself to argue that no new law is necessary, that Congress should omit or dilute “follow the money” rules that undoubtedly will appear in new legislation, and/or that whatever the new law might look like, Google now sits on the lawful side of the road.

Meanwhile, as Deven asks, why should copyright owners be the only ones getting preferential treatment from Google?  Why not victims of hate speech?  Why not governments deprived of revenue by tax cheats?  Why not gold medal winners and Super Bowl champions?  Or ( somewhat more seriously), “authorized” representations and presentations of celebrities and well-known athletes and politicians?  Or governments that we want to be friendly with?  Google ultimately decided to stand up to the regime in China, but it won’t stand up to the MPAA.  Hmmm.

Recently I posted about Google’s renewal of its fair use arguments in the context of the Google Book Search litigation. The important fair use claim in that case is not the claim about Google’s posting “snippets” of copyrighted books.  The important fair use claim is that claim about Google’s scanning the entire text of copyrighted books in order to generate the database that permits it to serve snippets as search results.  The process of creating that database is, legally speaking, closely related to the process of creating the database that permits any search provider to serve results.  The Google Book Search litigation, and Google’s arguments there, turn out to be pretty fundamental to how search works, and Google is in there right now, fighting that particular good fight.

That leaves me scratching my head.  Does Google not see that these two things — its new copyright-based search algorithm and its fair use position in the Book Search litigation — are related?  I am sure that it does.  Google employs too many really smart people, including some really smart lawyers, not to see the linkage.  I’ve read enough corporate history to know that “Don’t Be Evil” never really disciplined Google’s development; I’ve now seen enough corporate behavior to conclude that Google is, in practice, just another corporate beast.  Some good, some bad, some so-so.

I’ll end the rant here.  It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens next.

14 thoughts on “Google’s Era Coming to an End?”

  1. The Google ship sailed a long time ago. You just noticed it now. It’s been going on a long time – accusations of preferential treatment for e.g. YouTube, “content farm” picking of winners and losers, arguably the algorithm support of Wikipedia, etc.

    Granted, this is a pretty high-profile instance. But the search observers have been talking about it for a while.

  2. This type of private ordering is happening all throughout the Internet ecosystem. Just take a look at the Copyright Alert System; the new ‘six-strikes’ plan for media companies and ISPs to punish users who allegedly infringe copyrighted works. In essence, it’s a private law enforcement system with no government oversight.

    In part, I think the push in this direction is due to Congressional inaction to bring copyright doctrine into the Information Age.

  3. “The Internet has long been well on its way to becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Media, just another big private company massaging data (‘our’ data) for its own benefit and for the benefit of those other companies with the market caps and voices loud enough to matter.”

    I’m having difficulty determining in what way this could be true. The Internet is massively decentralized, content-wise, compared to anything that has come before it. Perhaps in some sort of framing-error way, it is not quite as large-player free as some may have hoped, but I don’t see how that makes it a subsidiary of anything. The amount of content produced and readily available outside of large-media-company chains is staggering. Blogs, much of what is available on YouTube, Facebook posts, static websites of all flavors, content repositories like SSRN and Arxiv, Craigslist, eBay, online review sites, Wikis of various sorts, small news sites, independent game developers; large-company works are just a (possibly shrinking?) portion of all of this, and competing with it. Can you say more about why you think the Internet’s *content* is becoming wholly produced by large media companies? Or is the concern something other than who will be producing content?

  4. Bruce, I’m not sure whether you’re reading my statement literally (in that case, I agree with you that it’s not true) or if you’re inferring a metaphorical step that I didn’t take, or at least didn’t imagine that I was taking. The metaphorical step is your question: why do I think the Internet’s ‘content’ is becoming wholly produced by large media companies? That’s not what I wrote, and if you think that it’s what I meant, then I really stumbled badly. My bad. ‘Something other than who will be producing content’ gets closer to my mark. The rant (i.e., the post) is metaphorical and rhetorical, and it goes not to who is producing content but instead to who controls how (when, where, under what circumstances) content is made available or visible to consumers. Google is now collaborating with a relatively small number of “content” interests to determine the shape (rankings) of Google search results, based on the copyright concerns of those “content” interests. That has a significant practical impact on consumers, in its own right, and it raises legitimate questions about what happens next. Google is, in some metaphorical sense, a kind of library: a portal to a universe of information. So far as I know, librarians have not collaborated with copyright owners to determine which books get entries in the card catalog, and which do not.

    Google is not, in fact, a library. I know that, so it’s not right to simply maps concerns from one area into another. But suppose that we did — map, in that sense. Would that portend the end of the cultural universe — with respect to books, first, and then with respect to whatever we find online? No. Should it (in either case) be balanced against or offset or otherwise considered in the context of a huge amount of content that comes from other interests? Yes, in a sense. As to libraries — I can find books in lots of ways and in lots of places. In a different post and for different reasons I might say, “good riddance” to music and film produced and distributed by major labels and studios, whether that’s original or pirated. (I might say that, and others do say that, but I probably would not in fact believe that.)

    But what Google is now doing remains extremely worrisome nonetheless. Among the reasons for thinking so is that the vast and fecund Internet is rich with content possibilities only, or at least almost only, if there exist meaningful and useful ways for people to find this stuff. Back at the dawn of Internet time, say the mid-1990s, it was enough to put things out there and then have people follow hyperlinks, or maybe the original Yahoo! or other directories. I don’t think that works any longer; as the Internet has gotten “bigger” and more diverse, I think not just that we’ve become accustomed to search but that search has become indispensable. The politics of search are therefore critical.

    I’m not making an original argument here; Seth’s comment makes clear something that I hinted at in the post — there are a lot of people out there who’ve made this topic their passion for a long time.

  5. Both – see, just for example, “The Myth of Digital Democracy
    Matthew Hindman”

    Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

    The Myth of Digital Democracy. debunks popular notions about political discourse in the digital age, revealing how the Internet has neither diminished the audience share of corporate media nor given greater voice to ordinary citizens.

  6. @Bruce Boyen – by the way, your point is almost FAQ #1 .

    Consider the following argument: “The dead tree print world is massively decentralized, content-wise, compared to anything that has come before it. … The amount of content produced and readily available outside of large-media-company chains is staggering. Subscription newsletters, “underground” magazines, self-published ‘zines, vanity press of all sorts, people writing in their diaries, local circulars and handbills, small press exchanges; large-company works are just a (possibly shrinking?) portion of all of this, and competing with it.”

    That is, if we added up every printed word, from any place, that someone might possibly read, we could then e.g. “conclude” that national newspapers are insignificant. I hope the fallacy there is obvious.

  7. Mike, you’re very kind to assume that your writing was confusing rather than my reading. I think I was distracted by the words “Big Media,” which I read as content producers. But it sounds like your concern is “Big Distributors.” I.e., that if Google is successful in steering people away from sites that receive a large number of 512(d) requests for search-engine de-linking, the content ultimately available to consumers will be radically filtered compared to what is available now.

    I think the trend is entirely in the other direction, though — toward the removal or evasion of gates at which the old money-for-content exchange (or advertising for content, or what have you) used to be performed. To the extent Google bucks this trend is a significant way, I think that’s more dangerous for Google than it is dangerous for everyone else. Altavista used to be my favorite search engine, until suddenly it wasn’t.

    Libraries are an interesting point of comparison. Librarians can choose which books to purchase, and which to put on corner shelves, but their choices (at least if we are thinking print books) are constrained, in part by the difficulty of finding books put out by smaller presses, in part by limited budgets and limited demand for such books, and in part by community or other social norms. I suspect most libraries perform some sort of filtering that steers toward the major publishers, although it will not be the *same* filtering at all libraries — but if we’re going back to pre-Internet access, that’s small comfort for someone with only a few, perhaps one, library within easy physical proximity. Growing up I had access to two local libraries and two 45 minutes away. I suspect three of them made largely similar decisions about which books to purchase, and the one that didn’t — the local university library — was not exactly set up for easy browsing by teenagers.

  8. Seth, Hindman’s argument seems to be substantially different than what I am attempting to say — at least from the abstract, since I have not read the book as far as I can recall. I’m not arguing that elites don’t produce the content that most people consume. I’m arguing that a much larger portion of that content online is from non-large-media-company sources, and I meant to imply that that is a long-term trend that will continue to grow. (It may possibly have shrunk compared to 3 or 5 years ago as more large-company-produced work makes its way to ordinary consumers, but then again it may not given the overall increase in content available.)

    Also Hindman is focused on news, which is only a small (and perhaps shrinking) slice of the content I have in mind. News is an interesting case, because while there are many blogs and news sites written by non-full-time news organization professionals, they all (as has been widely noted) tend to link for their content — and drive traffic to — large news organizations.

    I don’t think your last hypothetical shows what you intend it to. I am not arguing that content produced by large media companies is an insignificant portion of what people now are viewing/reading/listening to online. And if we are comparing print-world media to “what came before,” then I would readily agree that the shift to print and other mechanically produced media was a hugely significant decentralization and transformation of control over information that was qualitatively different than what came before, somewhat akin to what is happening now (although I would hesitate to suggest that computer networks will have the same social significance as the printing press — it’s too early to tell).

  9. When you say “I’m arguing that a much larger portion of that content online is from non-large-media-company sources”, my point is, is this meant in the sense of “If you add up all the written words produced in a day, it’s a much larger proportion than those published by big media companies” – i.e., a pretty meaningless statistic that simply counts mere existence – or that this matters in any nontrivial _civic_ sense? (n.b. just pre-emptively, the often-seen idea of “You _could_ hit the attention-jackpot” is not something I’d consider a good rebuttal). This is the key divide in the debate. The critical sticking point, in the civic argument – THERE IS RE-INTERMEDIATION WITH NEW GATEKEEPERS (such as Google). When you say “removal or evasion of gates at which the old …” and “… that’s more dangerous for Google …” that goes against the repeated examples of the enormous power that Google has, everything from picking business winners and losers, to favoring certain broad types of websites.

    “Altavista used to be my favorite search engine, until suddenly it wasn’t.”

    The Soviet Union used to be a global threat of nuclear war, until rather suddenly it collapsed (not saying Altavista is comparable!). Dictators often get overthrown or die – this hardly means they aren’t dangerous.

  10. Thanks Seth for continuing the dialog. It’s actually not clear to me how much factually we disagree on. However, it is true that I find it difficult to get excited about anything Google is doing, or digital trends in general. (This is my overriding scholarly agenda: DON’T PANIC.) That could simply be a personality defect, though.

    I don’t understand why the amount of content being created on a daily basis should be “meaningless.” Surely *someone* is reading/viewing/whatever most of that stuff, or most of it wouldn’t get created. I suppose there have always been diarists, and there may be digital equivalents to that, and there may be other people operating under a delusion that they have readers when in fact they have none. But I’m not sure why the number of diarists/delusional people would have spiked in the last 20 years, so I feel safe in assuming it’s at about the same level it’s always been.

    “Re-intermediation” strikes me as an odd term, since it implies that there was an unintermediated gap at some point. But I’m not sure that’s even possible. Even your most basic transfer of content, a musician performing your own composition live to an audience, is mediated in a not trivial way by the physical space necessary for such an event to take place (which you can build a theater around, complete with a box office, and then charge money for admission). If a third party has rights to that space you have an intermediary. What’s going on now is that the location of the gates, and thus the identity of the intermediaries, is changing, but I stand by my statement that the new intermediaries have less control, as a practical matter, over the new gates than the old ones do over the old gates.

    Your Soviet Union example is informative, I think. It is very hard to switch to a new system of government when the existing government has control over you and your physical surroundings. There are enormous costs involved. And yet it happened anyway in the Soviet Union. Google has nothing like that power over its users. It has familiarity and ease of use, aided by the fact that it is a default search option in a number of applications. Plus whatever edge it has just by being a better search engine than its nearest rival. But that could all change quickly and easily if some option users perceive as better enough to overcome the minimal costs of switching comes along. Google has a pretty thin margin to exploit, I think, before the switching costs would be overcome, and the more difficult it makes it for people to find the stuff that they are actually looking for, the more it eats into that margin.

  11. Bruce, thank you for considering what I write worth reading :-).

    Well, what people get excited about indeed varies, and nobody can care about everything. But there’s a difference between recognizing one can at best alter a very small part of the world, and disagreeing that a problem exists in the first place. I can’t do anything about a massacre in (wherever), but that would be different from say, hypothetically arguing it’s really a good thing because that’s how evolution works (again, I’m not claiming you’re doing anything like this, but only illustrating the conceptual difference between limits of action, and factual disagreement).

    Regarding “I don’t understand why the amount of content being created on a daily basis should be “meaningless.”” – why should it mean anything to merely exist? What meaning does that have? The statement of existence is usually an *implicit* argument of some sort, and the point is to make that argument *explicit*, so it can be examined and rebutted if it’s untrue. So when you say “Surely *someone* is reading/viewing/whatever most of that stuff, or most of it wouldn’t get created.” – that’s an example of getting to the explicit argument, which may be almost completely false. Perhaps you’re right that “the number of diarists/delusional people” hasn’t change, BUT they can now *create more*. Much more. All of which remains nearly entirely unseen by anyone else. Or if it’s seen at all, it’s by a tiny number of like-minded peple, and hence it’s highly influenced by the very few elites/A-listers/top-rankers (whatever you want to call them) who have much larger audiences. And are gatekeepers to that audience. That’s only the start of an analysis.

    The term “re-intermediation” is opposing the buzzword “disintermediation”. There is indeed a change, a shift, where one set of intermediaries loses power, but another set *gains* power. Colloquially “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. That doesn’t imply there was no boss at some point.

    When you say “new intermediaries have less control, as a practical matter, over the new gates than the old ones do over the old gates” – even if it’s true, is it a relatively minor matter of which small group of insiders has the most power? That is, it’s quite true that the movie studios of say 1990 had less control over actors than the movie studios of 1930 – but this was pretty much irrelevant to all the moviegoers.

    The point about the Soviet Union is that powerful empires can fall, even rapidly, but that doesn’t make them not powerful while they exist. Of course Google doesn’t have nuclear weapons. But it does devote a lot of effort to tying into various products, so your argument about switching costs runs into the problem of perhaps not making an accurate estimate. You’ve also inadvertently pointed out that it can freely do the equivalent of marginalizing already marginalized groups, as most people won’t care, or could even approve, so that makes good business sense (shade of the fallacious discrimination argument, which runs that to the extent businesses don’t hire qualified x’s, they cede economic advantage to businesses that will, so no qualified x’s won’t ever be hired, so any x’s not hired must not be qualified – I hope it’s clear what’s wrong here!). Thus that circles back to what might be considered a problem.

  12. Bruce, sorry to have gone walkabout here for a couple of days. Thanks for your comment on mine (re libraries, and switching costs). Just a couple of quick notes:

    You’re right about libraries in the sense that they are gatekeepers. There are almost always gatekeepers lurking somewhere, and sometimes they’re not lurking – they are right in our face. There are some differences, I think, between how you describe what libraries and librarians do and the concerns that I (and I think Seth) identify w/r/t Google. The libraries and librarians that I know perform their gatekeeper function using their own independent discretion, guided in part by the discipline of librarianship (nb. understanding copyright law is part of this) and in part by resource constraints. I’ve never understood libraries or librarians to be guided by what copyright owners or publishers believe is appropriate for patrons to have access to.

    As for the fragility of Google’s position, I think that’s an empirical question. Someone must be doing research on this, or must have done research on it: What factors bear on “lock-in” relative to use of a search engine (or some other information source), and do those factors tell us anything about how Google is used relative to how Alta Vista was used (or Inktomi, Excite!, etc. – remember the good old days?)? Here’s my guess: Google is subject to a kind of psychic or social psychological network effect today that never existed for any of the early search engines or directories back in the good old days. Even today, I can “Bing” something rather than “Google” it, and in the privacy of my family room or my office, the difference doesn’t matter much. But in shared discourse, that switch means that in a minor way, I’m no longer part of the conversation among friends, colleagues, and others about what we are all doing. (Not in the sense of “we are all going to the ball game because Google told us where to go,” but “I Google, you Google, we Google, they Google.”). The empirical claim here is that people care about this stuff, in something of the same way that they used to care about what newspaper arrived in the driveway every morning – when most people did get a newspaper delivered, and when many people had a choice of more than one paper. I think that this is how Google got popular in the first place: Google signified a kind of identity, and a point of entry to a certain style of using the Internet (“I use Google rather than Yahoo! rather than AOL”) – and early adoption somehow became mass / mainstream popularity. (The “somehow” is what the research should explain.) Eventually, these things fade out – often, but not always – or stabilize at the margins. The Onion and the Daily Show are durable, but they haven’t become mainstream substitutes for the New York Times. No one right now expects the Times to suddenly disappear and be replaced by some other news source that we’ve never heard of before. And even if it were (as I think Seth suggests), that possibility doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about the ways in which the Times (Google, librarians) performs its gatekeeping role.

    Your guess, it almost goes without saying, is as good as mine.

  13. First, I want to back up Mike’s comment that “Google is subject to a kind of psychic or social psychological network effect today that never existed for any of the early search engines or directories back in the good old days,” and add to it.

    Google’s infrastructure is enormous. Google is far more likely to purchase a start-up with valuable search technology than it is to be displaced by them. And if Goliaths like Facebook and Apple manage to squeeze Google out of the burgeoning worlds of social and mobile computing, they will raise the same concerns Mike raised above.

    Beyond the infrastructural challenge, many other factors make it extremely difficult for competitors to emerge in the general purpose search space. Google’s secrecy is not only designed to keep spammers from manipulating its results; it can also prevent rival companies from copying its own methods, or building upon them. Unlike patents, which the patent holder must disclose and which eventually expire, it is possible for trade secrets to never be revealed, let alone enter the public domain. Note also that, while Google is very enthusiastic about fair use for content, it is unlikely to allow use of its data by anyone who threatens its competitive position. As long as Google’s search data store is secret, no would-be rival will have access to this critical “raw material” for search innovation.

    Innovation in search is heavily dependent on a base of users that “train” algorithms to be more responsive. The more search queries an engine gets, the better able it is to sharpen and perfect its results. For example, if a search engine finds that everyone in a given area clicks on the third result instead of the first result in a given day, it can tailor results for that area to elevate what was once merely the third result. If other firms were able to observe this process, they might be able to develop rival, and better, computational strategies. Instead, the data is kept secret. The self-reinforcing “Matthew Effect” described by Robert Merton takes hold: to those who already have much, more is given. Incumbents with large numbers of users enjoy substantial advantages over smaller entrants.

    Finally, restrictive terms of service also deter competitors who aspire to reverse engineer and develop better versions of such services. Every time a user types in a search query, they agree to Google’s “Terms of Service.” That contract forbids users to reproduce, copy, or resell any Google service for any reason, even if the behavior is manual and nondisruptive. Another section proscribes “creat[ing] a derivative work of . . . the Software.” Advertisers have faced other restrictions via Google’s AdWords Terms & Conditions. All of these factors militate against robust competition.

    Quantum leaps in technology capable of overcoming these brute disadvantages are unlikely. Search is as much about personalized service as it is about technical principles of information organization and retrieval. Current advantage in search is likely to be self-reinforcing, especially given that so many more people are using the services now than when Google overtook other search engines in the early 2000s.

    There are isolated consumer boycotts of Google, but a company so dominant can do without the business of, say, hardcore Rick Santorum supporters. Most of the problems described above would not even be noticed by ordinary web searchers, let alone provoke a protest. Why would the average user compare dozens of search results to assess and re-assess rival companies? Consumers lack both the incentive and the ability to detect manipulation as long as they are getting “good enough” results. Given the opacity of search algorithms, neither users nor trusted proxies can reverse engineer the hundreds of factors or signals that go into a ranking.

  14. Now, a bit more on the main point of the post.

    I think we should expect to see many more deals like this, among the big internet companies (Goo, App, Fb), the big carriers, and the big content owners. The future is vertical integration up and down: pipes, search, devices, content. Expect tons of deals to be done in secret, draped in proprietary contracts (like backbone peering is done now).

    The big question is just how much these combined entities can extract from an increasingly broke middle-class. David Cay Johnston’s book “The Fine Print” opens with a discussion of the carriers’ ingenious efforts to increase dollars extracted per person.

    Given that Google is now not only partnering with intel agencies, but also to content industries, maybe there will be an “individual mandate” some day, where everyone must buy some kind of insurance to insure against the possibility of copyright liability. The health care model appears increasingly apt:

    Maybe competition will bring down prices, or maybe all the tech companies are gradually coalescing around mutually assured dominance in their various fields. Hard to tell.

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