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Privacy and competition: Interrogating Google

Google’s been on the chopping block a lot lately with suggestions that it promotes anti-competitive behavior by serving its own self-interest and robbing consumers of alternative search and related services.

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It seems to be part of a broader move by many governments to ensure that massive digital conglomerates like Google, Apple and Facebook are held accountable for the data they collect each time we switch on a mobile phone or perform an internet search. Do we need specific legislation to protect consumers from the private sector? And if that protection came into effect how far should regulation go? These are the kinds of questions that are now up for debate.

Keeping an eye on the big guys, while they keep an eye on you

Some consumers tread very carefully in the digital world, wary at all times of who might be watching them. They’ll set up web proxies, disposable email addresses, IP hiders, anything to keep their digi-tracks light and untraceable.

Most of us, however, are probably quite thankful for the convenience of auto-fill forms, web histories, and relevant, targeted ads — no point advertising a menopausal treatment to a high-school jock right? The more Google can accurately aggregate our browsing habits, our points of contact and our communications, the better it can proposition advertisers and investors. Google will of course always advocate for this in the name user optimisation. But, predictably, there’s a lot of money involved here too.

The European Competition Commission is right now finalising its two-year investigation over whether Google’s immense clout in the search industry is anti-competitive and effectively robs consumers of their freedom to choose. Part of their investigation is around whether Google manipulates their organic SERPS (search engine results page) to prioritise their own services above their competitors.

When questioned about their supposed monopoly, Google’s defense has always been that “competition is only one click away”. But the more progressive thinkers aren’t buying it. Says Senator Al Franken, a leading proponent of tighter regulatory controls on massive IT companies like Apple and Google, “Users who don’t want some kind of super-profile” created by Google face the “not easy” task of finding a search engine equivalent to Google’s. Franken goes on to note,

The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy. When companies become so dominant that they can violate their users’ privacy without worrying about market pressure, all that’s left is the incentive to get more and more information about you. That’s a big problem if you care about privacy, and it’s a problem that the antitrust community should be talking about.

In some ways, Google is perfectly justified in tweaking its search algorithm the way it sees fit. After all, they’re a private company and aren’t ethically beholden to consumers in the same way that a nationally elected government might be. On the other hand, Google does possess an extraordinarily detailed dossier of Mr Average Joe and that almost certainly calls for some legislative accountability in how they handle all that sensitive information. This is a space worth watching.

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