Search Notes: Google and government scrutiny

Google's dominance draws attention from governments and courts, and it's time to say goodbye to AllTheWeb

This week’s column explores the latest in how we access information online and how the courts and governments are weighing in.

Google continues to be one of the primary ways we navigate the web

GoogleA recent Citi report using comScore data is yet the latest that illustrates how much we use Google to find information online.

The report found that Google is the top source of traffic for 74% of the 35 properties analyzed and that Google traffic has remained steady or increased for 69% of them.

However, it was a slightly different picture for media sites, as many saw less traffic from Google and more traffic from Facebook.

Also, a recent Pew study found that for the 24% of Americans who get most of their political news from the internet, Google comes in third at 13% (after CNN and Yahoo).

More generally, 67% of Americans get most political news from TV and 27% rely on newspapers (the latter is down from 33% in 2002). This trend is what’s being seen generally for media, as noted in a recent comprehensive study by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism, in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Google and governments, courts, and other legal entanglements

Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Notice the use of the word “world” rather than “Internet.” They’re organizing our email, our voice mail, and the earth.

While having everything at our fingertips at a moment’s notice is awesome, it also can make governments and courts nervous.

Case in point, the U.S. Senate is planning to hold an anti-trust investigation into Google’s “dominance over Internet search” and their increasing competition with ecommerce sites.

Senator Herb Kohl noted that the “Internet continues to grow in importance to the national economy.” He wants to look into allegations by websites that they “are being treated unfairly in search ranking, and in their ability to purchase search advertising.”

Texas also recently filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google, looking for access to information about how both organic and paid results are ranked.

Of course, if Google reveals too much, then their systems can be gamed. Searchers won’t get the best results. Site owners would lose out too as the most relevant and useful result wouldn’t appear at the top of results.

Why should we trust Google to rank results fairly? Ultimately, if they build a searcher experience that doesn’t benefit the searcher, they could lose users and market share, so it’s in their best interest to continue on their stated path.

“Right to be forgotten”

Another fairly recent case involves the Spanish courts. Google search simply indexes and ranks content that exists on the web. When something negative appears about a person or company, they will sometimes ask Google to remove it, but Google’s stance is typically that the person or company has to work with the content owner to remove the content — Google just indexes what is public. (Exceptions to this exist.)

In Spain (and other parts of Europe), someone has “the right to be forgotten,” but this doesn’t apply to newspapers as they are protected by freedom of expression rules. Does it apply to Google’s index of that newspaper content? Apparently, it’s been ruled both that freedom of expression rules don’t apply to search engines and that Google is a publisher and laws that apply to newspapers apply equally to Google.

A Spanish plastic surgeon wants Google to remove a negative newspaper article from 1991 from their search results (although he can’t legally ask the newspaper itself to remove the article). The Wall Street Journal sums up the case this way:

The Spanish regulator says that in situations where having material included in search results leads to a massive disclosure of personal data, the individual concerned has the right to ask the search engine to remove it on privacy grounds. Google calls that censorship.

Google does remove content based on government requests when legally obligated to do so and it makes a summary of those requests available.

Sidenote to anyone upset about a negative newspaper article appearing in search results: It’s probably a bad idea to try to bribe the journalist into taking the content down.

Google can’t become the “Alexandria of out of-print books” quite yet

Google BooksSearch isn’t the only area being scrutinized. Google has also been scanning the world’s books and making them universally accessible. The courts justrejected a settlement between Google and the Authors Guild that created an opt-out model for authors. Neither Google nor the Authors Guild is happy. Authors Guild president Scott Turow said, “this Alexandria of out-of-print books appears lost at the moment.”

Block any site from your Google search results

Since we all use Google to navigate the web, it makes sense that we want to be able to have our own personal Google and block the sites we don’t like. Last month in this column, we talked about Google’s chrome extension that enabled searchers to create a personal blocklist. Now this ability is open to everyone. Once you click on a listing and then return to the search results, the listing you clicked includes a “block all results” link. Click that and you’ll never see results from that site again. You can manage this block list in your Google account.

Bye, AllTheWeb!

AllTheWebGoogle may seem unstoppable, but only a few years before Google launched, another search engine was dominant on the web. Alta Vista launched in late 1995 with innovative crawling technology that helped it gain vast popularity. Alta Vista later lost out to Google and was acquired by Yahoo. In late 2010, Yahoo announced they were closing down several properties, including Alta Vista.

That hasn’t happened yet, but AllTheWeb, another of Yahoo’s search properties is closing April 4th, at which time you’ll be redirected to Yahoo. Alta Vista can’t be far behind.

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  • David

    I am not a lawyer but aren’t these attempts at government regulations of search rankings ultimately futile?
    Specially in the US, Google does have the right to an editorial process under the 1st Amendment which is their ultimate defense against any outcome that entails basically instructing Google about what to display on it’s web property thus will be rejected as unconstitutional.