Google still controls your information, despite EU ruling

Feb 11, 2014 by Giuseppe A. Veltri, The Conversation
Google has you in a filter bubble and you might not even know it. Credit: melanie.phung

After a long investigation, Google has finally reached a settlement with the European Commission about how it presents search results.

The Commission had started investigating Google in the first place over concerns about its dominance of the in Europe, where it accounts for 90% of searches. This is even bigger than its dominance in the US, where it controls around two-thirds of the market.

The company has been accused of prioritising its own webpages and those of rivals and has agreed to change its ways in order to avoid a fine of up to $5 billion.

Search results will now have to report alternative options from other websites. Rather than demoting them in favour of sites that promote Google's own interests, as it has until now.

To comply with the ruling, Google has agreed to give rival links greater visibility, using a dedicated shaded box that can't be switched off. This sits next to Google's own results from specialised services and will be used across mobile and any future versions of Google that uses the specialised search function.

But, crucially, Google was successful in protecting its secret algorithm from oversight by regulators.

The reaction from other interested parties was not positive. According to FairSearch.org, an advocacy group sponsored by companies such as Microsoft and Oracle, the deal is "worse than nothing". It argues that these measures will not be sufficient to challenge Google's dominance, citing its own study showing that proposals put to the Commission along the way to this agreement only served to drive up traffic to its own sites.

Google’s results current format. Credit: European Commission

Filtering your life

This rumbling search engine war is a surface issue in a deeper debate about accessing internet that has gone beyond fair commercial competition and that affects us all.

Search engines have become part of our daily life, playing the extremely important role of the most common intermediary between the user and information on the web. And yet, their authority and their role in presenting and ranking web pages – and therefore information – remains largely unexplored.

The main issue is what is known as "source distance". Search engine queries produce lists of links that take you to the various websites that match the terms you have entered. The order in which these links is ranked relates to the importance of each webpage is to your query. And that is decided by an algorithm developed by the search engine.

The way in which search engines – and Google in particular – privilege sources and put them on top of their rankings using their own algorithm is the subject of a fascinating debate.

Manipulating these rankings has huge potential consequences for users, who see information according to how the search engine wants them to see it.

So if one search engine controls 90% of a market, as Google does in Europe, and you as a company, a group or an individual, don't show up in its rankings, you may as well not exist.

Google’s results in the new format. Credit: European Commission

Proprietary algorithms such Google's PageRank and Facebook's News Feed are becoming the main interfaces through which online information is accessed, we should start asking serious questions about the societal implications of such control over information.

As well controlling our information through search algorithms, companies like Google influence our cognition through "filter bubbles". These are created when the invisible filters that search engines use to provide tailored information and advertising to users start to limit the information you see.

This system of inclusion and exclusion of sources based on web history translates into idiosyncratic results for each user. One main effect of the filter bubble is the so-called "echo chamber", in which the information an individual sees simply reaffirms their existing beliefs because it reflects what they have already seen or read. Users aren't presented with anything unexpected or challenging inside their bubble because it matches their previous search patterns and unwittingly avoid challenges to their opinions. In a bid to counter the phenomenon, search engines such as DuckDuckGo are offering anonymous search so that each request for information is like starting anew.

In the past there was much more variety because the presence of different search engines ensured algorithmic variety and different . But that variety is being lost, particularly in Europe, because almost all results are curated by Google.

Don't be evil is the informal corporate motto of Google but it has no interest in being "good" either, as the EU deal might suggest to the casual onlooker. It's time for a wider debate, both at national and European level, on the societal consequences of Google's in search and its resulting influence over the knowledge available to us.

Explore further: EU: Google submits new proposals in antitrust case (Update)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Canada's antitrust regulators scrutinizing Google

Dec 14, 2013

Government regulators in Canada are poised to open a formal investigation into whether Google is abusing its dominance of the Internet search market to stifle competition and drive up digital advertising prices.

EU: Google shouldn't discriminate against opt-outs

Dec 09, 2013

Europe's top regulator says he has asked Google not to discriminate against companies that don't want it to use their content in Google's specialized search results, such as price comparison for plane tickets or reviews of ...

EU ups pressure on Google in antitrust case (Update)

Jan 15, 2014

The European Union's antitrust watchdog is increasing pressure on Google to swiftly provide better proposals to address allegations the firm is abusing its dominant position in Internet searches.

Google closes in on deal in EU antitrust case

Feb 05, 2014

Google is offering new and "far-reaching" concessions to the European Union's antitrust watchdog that are likely to be enough to settle allegations it is abusing its dominant position in Internet searches, ...

Recommended for you

Scalping can raise ticket prices

18 hours ago

Scalping gets a bad rap. For years, artists and concert promoters have stigmatized ticket resale as a practice that unfairly hurts their own sales and forces fans to pay exorbitant prices for tickets to sold-out concerts. ...

Study shows role of media in sharing life events

Jul 24, 2014

To share is human. And the means to share personal news—good and bad—have exploded over the last decade, particularly social media and texting. But until now, all research about what is known as "social sharing," or the ...

User comments : 0