Is Google evil? That's essentially what the United States Senate -- not exactly the best arbiters of good and evil, you gotta admit! -- is going to be trying to figure out over the next few days.
Later today, Google's former CEO and current executive chairman Eric Schmidt is going to be planting himself in a chair in front of the antitrust sub-committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This august body consists of Democratic Senators Herb Kohl of Wisconsin (Chairman), Chuck Schumer of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Al Franken of Minnesota, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Republicans Michael S. Lee of Utah (Ranking Member), Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and John Cornyn of Texas.
The hearing, called "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?", is quite obviously specifically targeting Google.
The power of Google
The power of Google is without dispute, as any of us who operate or write for a Web site will tell you. Almost anyone with a Web site on the Internet is, one way or another, subject to the whims and mercies of the Google search engine (and, to some extent as well, Google News and the other Google services).
If Google loves us and shares its juice, we make more money. If the Google algorithm dislikes us, looks down upon us, or believes we're "gaming it," it does its best to "disappear" us off the consumer Internet. Even a blog like ZDNet Government, which get a large chunk of traffic from regular readers, feels the effect of Google's affection. On days when my articles are picked up on Google News, for example, I get a tremendous surge in new readership.
Oh, the irony!
It's into this modern reality our Senators are preparing to tread, with some encouragement from Microsoft. The irony is hard to miss, given Microsoft's own brush with anti-trust a decade ago.
One of the interesting things to look for will be just what Eric Schmidt has to say. Mr. Schmidt has been known to make some pretty incendiary statements, including "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it" and "If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place."
Keep an eye out for some good, quotable quotes. But don't just listen for the fun of it. Pay attention, because what Schmidt says will have a direct impact on your relationship with the Web and the Internet for the foreseeable future.
How much control?
I believe the question shouldn't whether or not Google is padding its search results with too many AdWords ads at the top of pages. I believe the question should be, "How much control should one company have over what we can find on the Internet?"
This, of course, is an interesting paradox. We all want good information when we do a Web search. While content farms often populate our results with crap, who should be the arbiter of what information we find and what we don't? Should it be Google? Should it be Microsoft? Should it be the United States Senate? Should it be the FTC?
Or should we just leave it to market forces, which could reduce the Web into pockets of automatically-generated pablum suited for an algorithm's eyes, but of no use to society as a whole?
Make no mistake about it. This is big, although I have my doubts Senators Franken, Schumer, and their buddies really see how big. More and more of us get our information about the world, interact with the world, choose what we buy, manage our finances, and make decisions based on what we find online.
Determining who has the power to present that information to us is, essentially, determining who has the power to present to us a certain view of the world.
I am not a fan of breaking apart companies under the guise of anti-trust. I think we need to let corporations grow to their own, natural, top-heavy level and see what they do to manage themselves. Netflix is certainly a good example of the corporate form of natural selection.
But there is great power in Google's hands and that should make us all stop and think. After all, if Senators Kohl, Schumer, Klobuchar, Franken, Blumenthal, Lee, Grassley, and Cornyn ask too many hard questions of Mr. Schmidt, he could just decide to "disappear" them from what most people think of as the real Internet: Google search results.
Don't think it can't happen. Just ask former Senator (and current GOP Presidential candidate) Rick Santorum what he thinks about Google's power.
On one hand, it's very funny and humor points go to the Internet bloggers who Google-bombed Mr. Santorum. On the other hand, the influence of Google is not to be underestimated. Even though I don't think former Senator Santorum has a chance in heck of getting elected, he is a recognized candidate for President of the United States and still, Google's algorithm has the last laugh.
Please link to this article. I can use all the Google juice I can get.
- Google: A Guide to the Senate Judiciary Hearing
- U.S. Senate: Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights
- U.S. Senate: "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?"
- ZDNet: Is Google stuffing search pages with paid links? Senate hearing coming up on Wednesday...
- Wall Street Journal: Top 10: The Quotable Eric Schmidt
- Politico: Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington
- BusinessWeek: Google Ad Rate for Microsoft Said to Be Under U.S. Investigation
What do you think? Is Google too powerful? TalkBack below.