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Ganging up on Google

Ben Woodhead (MIS Australia) | May 20, 2009
The search engine's phenomenal growth is matched by a growing chorus of criticism.

Little more than a decade ago Google did not exist. Today it is ubiquitous - and one of the world's most successful, contentious and feared brands. The journey from zero to hero and on to villain has been astonishingly swift. It's taken even the company's most experienced hands by surprise.

"A few years ago they were the champion of the underdog and now an awful lot of people are looking at them and saying, 'Wait a minute, they are the big, bad, ugly guy'," says Gartner analyst and Google watcher Tom Austin.

"It's an interesting evolutionary point in time for Google."

At stake, say the widening array of business and government interests lining up against the internet giant, is nothing less than control over the flow of information in the digital age.

Google's giant empire is broadening from its dominant position in web search and online advertising into software that can run mobile phones, provide access to the internet and permit cheap - or even free - telephone calls.

The company's grand ambitions have attracted the attention of US regulators three times in less than 12 months, and its hard-nosed tactics are making waves as well.

Anger has been building for years but reached a crescendo recently when major media companies joined the attack. However, Google faces more than red-faced critics. The US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission have begun separate probes into its activities in the past two months, although there are no allegations of wrongdoing as yet.

News Corp chief executive Rupert Murdoch can take some credit for the sudden and savage criticism of Google, after he took it on last month. "Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights?" he asked. "Thanks, but no thanks."

He joined a long list who regard the profit that Google makes from taking other companies' content for its own news pages as theft.

Days after Murdoch's assault, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Thomson, weighed in, labelling Google "a parasite". The chief executive of wire service AP, Tom Curley, also lashed out at the "wacky algorithm" the search engine uses to rank news sources.

Google's ranking of content based on popularity rather than source - be it an anonymous blog, a social networking site or major media outlet - has earned it the sobriquet the "great deflator". Content that cost a fortune to produce ends up in Google's low or zero margin world alongside material which cost nothing. There's no such thing as a return on investment here.

Once the critics had been heard, the chorus warmed up. Musicians Neil Young, Billy Bragg and Robin Gibb complained that Google had refused a request from the UK's Performing Rights Society for Music that it pay fees for music videos uploaded to its YouTube site.


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