With one company now the world's chief gateway to information, some critics are hatching ways to fight its influence
By Drake Bennett | June 22, 2008 The Boston Globe
Google may be widely admired for its technical wizardry and its quick, accurate search engine, but one of the company's most impressive accomplishments has been its ability to grow as powerful as it is while still remaining, in the minds of most Americans, fundamentally likable.
The company today is a behemoth, with more than 15,000 employees and a market value as big as Coca-Cola and Boeing combined. Its search engine is the tool of first resort for expert researchers and schoolkids alike; for suspicious employers, first-daters, long-lost friends, blackmailers, reporters, and police investigators - in short, for seekers of any and all sorts of information. In April, the most recent month for which it compiled statistics, Nielsen Online found that 62 percent of all US Internet searches were done using Google. Yahoo, the next largest player, had only 17.5 percent of the market.
Despite its size and dominance, Google has avoided the public suspicion and vilification that have plagued powerful companies from Standard Oil to Microsoft. Instead, protected by its reputation for innovation, its famed "Don't Be Evil" mantra, and the ever-improving precision of its search engine, Google has remained for the most part a trusted, even a beloved, brand.
But as Google's influence grows, a number of scholars and programmers have begun to argue that the company is acquiring too much power over our lives - invading our privacy, shaping our preferences, and controlling how we learn about and understand the world around us. To counter its pervasive effects, they are developing strategies to push back against Google, dilute its growing dominance of the information sphere, and make it more publicly accountable. The solutions range from programs one can install on one's computer to proposed laws forcing Google to reveal parts of its proprietary search algorithm. A few experts and privacy activists are pushing for public funding for alternative search technologies, and one legal scholar wants to give individuals and companies a "right of reply" when searches bring up sites that slander them or appropriate their intellectual property.