Stephen Foley: Google has a fight on its hands to preserve an open and accessible web


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The Independent Online

US Outlook: Google is being a bully. On our behalf.

The search engine giant has come in for some heavy criticism for integrating the Google+ social network into its search results, accused of abusing a monopoly position. Twitter's general counsel, Alex Macgillivray, went as far as calling it "a bad day for the internet" and bombarded Google with accusations that it is demoting Twitter and other social networks in search results to promote the struggling Google+.

Both sides have agendas here, and Google's certainly involves promoting its nascent rival to Facebook, but what the search engine wants most of all is access to the "firehose" of content pouring through Twitter, 140 characters at a time. Real-time access, too, to the content being shared on Facebook.

Almost imperceptibly, activity on the web is slipping into silos, behind paywalls and password-protections or into mobile apps. That threatens Google, which can easily crawl, sort and serve up only the contents of the public web. And it hurts us. For over a decade it has become easier and easier to find any piece of information we desire, making huge leaps in how we learn, do business and settle arguments in the pub. That process could slide into reverse.

Google has done two things this week. The first has proved remarkably uncontroversial. For signed-in users, search results will be generated both from their content and friends on Google+ as well as the world wide web. Google's algorithms will learn progressively more about you, making it more likely that it will come up with the "right" answer to your search query.

Say you type in "python". If you share a lot of TechCrunch stories on Google+, you'll get stuff about the programming language. If you've told it you are a zookeeper, expect snakes.

By the by, Google has given Facebook and others a masterclass in how to deal with the privacy issues here. It is always clear that the results are shaped by your personal data, and it can be immediately and easily turned off.

The second thing Google has done is the more problematic, given it is so dominant a way of searching the web. Already competition authorities here and around the world are examining if it has, and if it abuses, a monopoly. So far, despite numerous accusations, it has not been shown to demote rival companies to promote Google services in its search results. That changed this week, since it is obvious that Google+ pages have leapt up the rankings.

The solution, as Google sees it, is not for Twitter and others to whinge about being demoted, but to agree to let Google and other search engines integrate their networks into its personalised search system, too. That is a problem for Twitter, since it has built a business on the premise that it can milk our tweets for dollars by selling access to that content to advertisers or ... Google.

So Google is trying to bully Twitter into sharing what it wants to keep to itself, and trying to lure content back out from these unsearchable silos. It will be a long tussle; maybe some money will have to change hands, in ad revenue sharing deals. But the aim of a unified, open and accessible web is a noble one, and worth fighting for.