As Google turns 20 with a new search engine launch, Chris Middleton looks at what it has been up to lately â and at the storm clouds gathering in the US and Europe for it and other large platforms.
Internet of Business says
Google celebrated its twentieth birthday this week by going back to its search roots. The company launched Dataset Search, a new search engine that enables academics, researchers, and policymakers to look for scientific and other large research datasets online.
Dataset Search is live now in beta, in multiple languages, indexing datasets in areas such as the environment, social sciences, and government. The aim is to embrace all academic resources, as institutions worldwide scrabble to tag their open datasets for indexing (see below).
Google already runs Google Scholar, a popular search engine for academic research.
The new search page will doubtless remind some middle-aged researchers of the day, 20 years ago, when they first clicked on the Google homepage and found themselves looking at an acre of white space and a keyhole into a world of information.
Since then, Googleâs commitment to making information easier to find has persuaded some to game its algorithms, distorting the very nature of information itself (hello SEO agencies). Others never look past page one, suggesting that as the data landscape becomes ever more vast, many of us are surveying it through smaller and smaller holes â such as the Google search bar.
Imagine a courier carrying a vast parcel of knowledge that he wants to deliver to someone, who has fallen asleep on the floor by his locked front door, waiting. The huge parcel can’t fit through the tiny letterbox, so he leaves it outside and posts a flyer through the hole instead, on which are written the words, ‘Buy this’. The recipient picks up the flyer, orders the product, and never sees the huge parcel of knowledge waiting on his doorstep.
In many ways, that’s the world that Google has created over the last two decades â whether by accident in a sincere attempt to put information at everyone’s fingertips, or by design to sell advertising.
Either way, it’s made many of us lazy. We’ve stopped looking for information ourselves, and many people wait for someone to deliver an easy answer through Google’s letterbox. If it’s not there in a split second, the implication is that it can’t be worth waiting for.
Might the same problem afflict academic data in future? In a blog post explaining the launch, Google AI research scientist Natasha Noy wrote, “To create Dataset Search, we developed guidelines for dataset providers to describe their data in a way that Google (and other search engines) can better understand the content of their pages.
âThese guidelines include salient information about datasets: who created the dataset, when it was published, how the data was collected, what the terms are for using the data, etc. We then collect and link this information, analyse where different versions of the same dataset might be, and find publications that may be describing or discussing the dataset.
âOur approach is based on an open standard for describing this information (schema.org) and anybody who publishes data can describe their dataset this way. We encourage dataset providers, large and small, to adopt this common standard so that all datasets are part of this robust ecosystem.”
Jeni Tennison, CEO of the London-based Open Data Institute (ODI), co-founded in 2012 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said, âDataset search has always been a difficult thing to support, and Iâm hopeful that Google stepping in will make it easier.
âSimply understanding how people search is important… what kind of terms they use, and how they express them. If we want to get to grips with how people search for data and make it more accessible, it would be great if Google opened up its own data on this.â
Indeed â and perhaps the company will.
In recent days, Google has reinforced its commitment to openness by, among other things, handing over full operational management of its Kubernetes containerisation/virtualisation tool to the open source community, via the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, and making the Ethereum blockchain dataset available to its Big Query analytics data warehouse.
But in other ways, it has been rather less open.
Chroming the Web
The latest update to Googleâs Chrome browser this week strips the âwww.â and âm.â from URLs in its address bar â characters that the development team apparently consider trivial.
However, some have pointed out that âwww.â and âm.â arenât trivial in some Web addresses, while others have suggested that the move will hide whether sites are being served by Googleâs AMP tool, allowing it to grab those sitesâ traffic for itself, invisibly.
And political openness is also causing the search, advertising, and cloud giant problems.
While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have been among those finding their platforms picked apart in the glare of contemporary US politics this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has not appeared before the Senate to answer questions about foreign interference in elections, along with hearings on alleged political bias and âfake newsâ.
US president Donald Trump has ramped up the rhetoric in recent days, suggesting that a number of companies, including Google and Facebook, are biased against conservative causes and opinions â a charge that the companies have refuted.
Google responded: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we donât bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to usersâ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we neverÂ rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.â
In a blog post this week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai called for new laws requiring companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to disclose how they decide on bans and other policy decisions.
However, not all of the criticisms come from Trump allies or appointees. âThe era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,â said Democrat senator Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, adding, âWhere we go from here now is an open question.â
Warner said that tech companies and social platforms were not doing enough to stop foreign influence in domestic matters â arguably overlooking the fact that Twitter, Facebook, and the rest, are global platforms, not US mouthpieces.
However, it is a matter of public record that fake accounts, troll farms, and Russian-backed social engineering programmes have been fanning the flames of any cause within the West that serves Russian interests â Zuckerberg and others have admitted as such.
Rock vs. hard place
These controversies leave companies such as Google between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they oppose tighter regulations, such as Californiaâs new GDPR-like data privacy act (which comes into force in 2020), and have been lobbying the government for a watered-down federal solution that serves their commercial interests.
But on the other, seeing Trump as an ally â especially against their home state of California â is a high-stakes gamble indeed, especially when the president regards them as biased against his political beliefs.
There is certainly a global sense that these discussions, when set alongside the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, represent a watershed moment for the industry â one way or another.
The idea that some companies, such as Google and Facebook, are now too big, too complex, and too powerful for their own or othersâ good is widely shared in Europe. Indeed, it was one of the spurs for the introduction of GDPR.
Watchdogs threaten to bite
Germany is among those seeking to rein in the giants, by bolstering the powers of its competition watchdog.
The idea is to prevent future platforms from becoming monopolies, and to stop companies like Google from simply buying up reams of smaller players â a policy that will rattle any startups whose goal is being acquired.
This week, German economy minister Peter Altmaier said it was essential to strike the right balance âbetween the growth chances of German and European platforms and preventing the abuse of market powerâ.
He published a 173-page report on proposals to give Germanyâs antitrust regulator powers to act before any company reaches a tipping point in market power â a process that can happen at extraordinary speed in the connected age, due to the network effect. The rapid rise of Facebook, Twitter, and others, demonstrate this.
The report says [translated from the German by Internet of Business], âDevelopments in the digital economy â in particular the growing importance of (a) data as critical input resource in production and distribution processes, and (b) digital platforms in some highly concentrated markets â raise the question of whether current antitrust laws are adequate to deal effectively and rapidly with new competition risks.
âSpecifically, the question arises as to whether the threshold for antitrust lawsâ ability to intervene and control abuse â generally or in certain cases â is currently set too high and prevents timely intervention.
âAgainst this background, this study analyses whether the rules to protect against abuse of economic power in (as yet) un-dominated markets are sufficiently clear and effective.â
Markets with strong network effects can quickly tip over into a monopoly, confirms the report. However, this process is often not “natural”, but can be “favoured or even induced by certain practices of individual actors. These practices include unilateral behaviours, such as targeted obstruction of multihoming [use of more than one network].”
Since this tipping point canât be reversed after the fact, the report recommends giving antitrust regulators the power to intervene before it is reached.
It also recommends giving regulators the power to prevent a merger or acquisition even if the deal does not create a monopoly, but is merely âan expression of an overall strategyâ to buy up early-stage companies before they can become a threat, and/or such deals help set a company on the path towards monopoly.
Were such a law to be adopted in Germany â and in Europe as a whole â it would challenge the core business model of large sections of the US technology industry, and any company that has grown by aggressive acquisition.
The report also proposes a new âdata for allâ law that would require dominant platforms, such as Google, to share the data that feeds them, allowing smaller competitors to train their own algorithms to a similar standard.
That would really challenge just how far companies such as Google are prepared to be open.