When Google meets with Congressional staffers, hoping to convince US lawmakers that it’s nothing but good for the world, the web giant likes to say that it believes in openness. "Open is better than closed," the company says. Open "enhances competition" and "encourages innovation." But if you ask the company to discuss its openness, it’s not too open about it.
Late last week, the consumer watchdog known only as Consumer Watchdog uncovered the canned pitch that Google recently launched at Capitol Hill in an effort to re-spin itself. Just to show how open it is, Google promptly posted the presentation to its Public Policy Blog (http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2009/05/googles-approach-to-competition.html).
The presentation calls itself "Google, Competition, and Openness." Consumer Watchdog – a famous thorn in Mountain View’s side (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/26/google_watchdog_kerfuffle/) – couldn’t help but unveil an unadulterated copy of the presentation alongside an "annotated" version re-titled "Google, Anti-Competitiontive, and Openness Non-Transparent." The Watchdog tells us it’s not responsible for the annotating. And we don’t doubt it. Nowadays, there’s no shortage of Google critics you could lay the blame on.
After the Department of Justice threatened a lawsuit (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/20/the_google_monopoly/) over Google’s ill-fated search ad pact with Yahoo! – and as both the DoJ (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/29/google_books_monopoly_probe/) and the FTC (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/05/07/google_confirms_ftc_probe/) launch new probes – the Mountain View PR machine feels the need to buff the company’s image among D.C. insiders.
"As Google has grown, the company has naturally faced more scrutiny about our business principles and practices," Google senior manager for global communications and public affairs Adam Kovacevich posted to his Public Policy Blog. "We believe that Google promotes competition and openness online, but we haven’t always done a good job telling our story."
But when we asked Kovacevich to get on the phone and chat about the presentation, he tossed us a few more weblinks. Google likes to say it’s open. But if you question its openness, it closes up.
Over the years, much has been made of Apple’s reluctance to discuss what goes on inside the company. The Reg once questioned (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/06/13/humiliation_apple/) whether the company’s marketing modus operandi was endangering the mental health of its PR staff. But Apple’s epically tight lip is little more than an inconvenience for the world’s journalists – and a source of perverse pleasure for unreconstructed fanbois. Apple is merely a hardware manufacturer with a few sidelines in software and media. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the company is tight-lipped or not.
Meanwhile, Google controls sprawling amounts of the world’s online information. And its ad system – the machine that makes all the money – is a moving target that even experienced advertisers don’t fully understand. What advertisers are paying for – and how much they’re paying – may change at any time, and so often, they’re none the wiser. It matters a great deal whether Google is tight-lipped or not – and it matters even more as the company’s online influence grows to unprecedented proportions.
Yes, Google is open in some ways. As its Capitol Hill presentation explains, Mountain View has opened up 100 million lines of code, and it’s now hosting 150,000 open-source projects developed by non-Googlers. Its Chrome browser is open source, as is Android, its mobile operating system. But as those presentation annotations point out: when Google’s riches are at stake, the company is closed in more ways than one.
In the areas where openness is most important – its ad system and its data-retention policies that feed its ad system – Google is preternaturally proprietary. And then some. The Mountain View PR machine wraps these issues in the sort of shameless spin that makes them that much harder to penetrate.
Ignorance and riches
"Google’s ad prices are set by competitive auction, ensuring that prices are market driven," the Google presentation reads. But this isn’t an auction where bidders alone determine prices (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/24/the_google_auction/). You can’t bid your way to the top of Google’s search ads. The company’s mystery quality score restricts how high an ad can climb on a results page, and that’s an obvious influence on bid prices – especially with new and inexperienced advertisers (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/18/when_google_does_evil/).
There are good reasons for quality scores. Google hopes to ensure that the most relevant ads appear at the top of the page. But this is Google’s definition of relevant. And its spinmeisters overplay (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/26/google_ads_and_adobe/) the ability of its mystery algorithms to match ads to whims of the world’s web surfers.
With its quality scores and its so-called "broad match" tool, Google may change its search ad placements at any time – without approval (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/12/how_the_google_stole_christmas/) from advertisers. One day, your ads may suddenly appear alongside search keywords you have no interest in – and you’ll pay for those ads. Yes, you can turn broad-match off. But like so many Google ad tools, it’s on by default, and you have to wonder how many advertisers know what’s what.
The trouble is that Google’s riches depend on user ignorance. If broad match was opt-in only, the company’s bottom line would plummet. And if Google were equally up-front about its data-retention policies, it couldn’t create a second cash cow through behavioral-targeted display ads.
Google’s Capitol Hill presentation insists that none of the 2007 fears over its merger with DoubleClick were ever realized, that independent sources hail its new "ad preference manager (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/11/google_behavioral_advertising/)" as a "giant leap for privacy." But the preference manager is no more than genius PR, a successful attempt to deflect conversation from what really matters.
With its new interest-based advertising behavioral ad system, Google is apparently tracking user behavior across both (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/23/google_and_doubleclick/E) its DoubleClick and native AdSense sites. But the PR machine won’t talk about that.
The real question is: how much of your surf data is Google storing and how long is it stored for? When the subpeona comes or the national security letter or the hack, what will be there? But in this case, Google seems to think, closed is better than open. In September, Google told the world it was "going to anonymize" its search logs after only nine months – down from the current 18. But more than half a year later, the company has yet to say whether this plan has actually been put in place. And even when this nine-month anonymization plan does arrive, it won’t actually anonymize (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/12/google_ip_anonymization/) after nine months.
As Google points out, both Yahoo! and Microsoft have mimicked its quality-score trick. And its two search competitors play their own privacy games (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/17/yahoo_anonymization_explained/). But Google controls upwards of 60 per cent of the search market. And by some accounts (http://www.attributor.com/blog/google-ad-server-share-now-at-57-microhoo-less-than-15-market-share/), the combined Google-Doubleclick controls 57 per cent of the non-search ad server market.
For an advertiser, turning elsewhere may not be an option. And for the average web surfer, the privacy threat looms all the larger.
Google says that "competition is one click away," pointing to a famous January incident (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/31/google_malware_snafu/) where a malware tracking snafu put its search engine out of commission for nearly an hour. Yahoo!’s search traffic doubled during that hour, and Google claims this as evidence that its market dominance could vanish at anytime. But once that hour was over, the web returned to normal. In the months since, Google’s market share has only grown (http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Press_Releases/2009/3/US_Search_Engine_Ranking).
If anything, the great malware snafu proves that competition isn’t a click away.
Which is only to say that the DoJ was right to flex a little muscle in response to Google’s Yahoo! ad pact – just as regulators in the EU are right to apply continued pressure over its privacy policies. What we need is an open Google. And in claiming it’s committed to openness, Google has done nothing but show that it’s not.