Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Robert Epstein: To break Google’s monopoly on search, make its index public

Could making Google’s search index public reduce the threat that it poses without breaking up the company? Robert Epstein thinks so.

Different tech companies pose different kinds of threats. I’m focused here on Google, which I’ve been studying for more than six years through both experimental research and monitoring projects. (Google is well aware of my work and not entirely happy with me. The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

Google is especially worrisome because it has maintained an unopposed monopoly on search worldwide for nearly a decade. It controls 92 percent of search, with the next largest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, drawing only 2.5%.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to end the company’s monopoly without breaking up its search engine, and that is to turn its “index” — the mammoth and ever-growing database it maintains of internet content — into a kind of public commons.

There is precedent for this both in law and in Google’s business practices. When private ownership of essential resources and services—water, electricity, telecommunications, and so on — no longer serves the public interest, governments often step in to control them.

An interesting idea, certainly one worthy of further discussion.

Doesn’t Google already share its index with everyone in the world? Yes, but only for single searches. I’m talking about requiring Google to share its entire index with outside entities — businesses, nonprofit organizations, even individuals — through what programmers call an application programming interface, or API.

Perhaps we’d all be better off if our laws caught up with the times and required companies like Google to make certain information available through APIs, just as public agencies must provide records in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Small business owners are sick of being unfairly treated by Google and they’re taking their complaints to regulators

A must-read from The New York Times.

“As a small business, it’s like David versus Goliath,” said Andrew Ding, the owner of the Handpulled Noodle. The shop’s Google listing is how most customers find his restaurant, yet, he said, he has no control over how his business is represented. There is no way for him to get rid of the ad next to the Google listing.

“Google is it,” Mr. Ding said in an interview. “I would love for small business owners that don’t have the clout or the influence to have more say about how their business is represented.”

There are countless small business owners out there like Andrew Ding.

Executives at Yelp have pushed for action against Google for years, but the U.S. authorities have done nothing. The EU has stepped in to partially fill the vacuum, but small businesses in the United States need a regulator in their own country on the job.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

DOJ antitrust chief has Google in his sights

It’s about time.

In a speech today, the top antitrust official at the United States Department of Justice assailed Google and Amazon as “digital gatekeepers” that are the “only significant players” in several crucial markets.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google loomed large over [Makan] Delrahim’s speech — first as a potential beneficiary of the U.S. government’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., and then as a company that pursued potentially problematic agreements itself in the search market.

Delrahim described “coordinated conduct that creates or enhances market power,” citing a proposed 2008 agreement between Google and Yahoo to have the former power search ads for the latter. The department told the companies it would file suit against the agreement and the companies backed away, Delrahim said.

The DOJ recently launched an industry probe and is reportedly investigating Google, while the FTC is looking into Amazon.

Interestingly, Delrahim is a former lobbyist for Google, and this has prompted calls for him to recuse himself from the Google investigation by other Google critics.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Google is fleecing publishers: Company made $4.7 billion from the news industry in 2018, study says

This unfair arrangement needs to end.

$4,700,000,000.

It’s more than the combined ticket sales of the last two “Avengers” movies. It’s more than what virtually any professional sports team is worth. And it’s the amount that Google made from the work of news publishers in 2018 via search and Google News, according to a study to be released on Monday by the News Media Alliance.

The journalists who create that content deserve a cut of that $4.7 billion, said David Chavern, the president and chief executive of the alliance, which represents more than 2,000 newspapers across the country, including The New York Times.

“They make money off this arrangement,” Mr. Chavern said, “and there needs to be a better outcome for news publishers.”

Google, of course, wants to protect this lucrative profit machine, so it has disputed the figures.

But whatever the figures are, the essential point here is that Google is a digital gatekeeper which is using its position to profit at the expense of publishers. Google makes and distributes Google Chrome, it develops Android, the world’s most popular mobile operating system, which it bundles its apps with, it operates the news and web search engines that people use to access information, including news. And of course it makes a lot of money selling advertising.

“If you look at the reason they have such high engagement on their platforms, increasingly news is the No. 1 driver,” media executive Terrance C.Z. Egger told the New York Times. “Given that, they wouldn’t want to see news go away. And yet the unintended consequence is we need to share the revenue or get paid for the content that we produce.”

Yep. Journalism, like other things worth having, isn’t free. Someone has to produce it. If society ceases valuing journalism, there will be less journalism.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Now we’ve got you! With much of the world on Chrome, Google plans to monetize its browser and stop people from using content blockers

Changes are coming to Chrome that will render many popular extensions (including those that block ads) unusable. And that’s by design. Google is a search and advertising apparatus first, and that cash cow must be protected.

Back in January, Google announced a proposed change to Chrome’s extensions system, called Manifest V3, that would stop current ad blockers from working efficiently. In a response to the overwhelming negative feedback, Google is standing firm on Chrome’s ad blocking changes, sharing that current ad blocking capabilities will be restricted to enterprise users.

Manifest V3 comprises a major change to Chrome’s extensions system, including a revamp to the permissions system and a fundamental change to the way ad blockers operate. In particular, modern ad blockers, like uBlock Origin and Ghostery, use Chrome’s webRequest API to block ads before they’re even downloaded.

uBlock Origin developer Raymond Hill notes:

Google’s primary business is incompatible with unimpeded content blocking. Now that Google Chrome product has achieve high market share, the content blocking concerns as stated in its 10K filing are being tackled.

Even Google admits this.

New and existing technologies could affect our ability to customize ads and/or could block ads online, which would harm our business.

Technologies have been developed to make customizable ads more difficult or to block the display of ads altogether and some providers of online services have integrated technologies that could potentially impair the core functionality of third-party digital advertising. Most of our Google revenues are derived from fees paid to us in connection with the display of ads online. As a result, such technologies and tools could adversely affect our operating results.

“We are starting to see Google’s conflict of interest arising,” independent security consultant Sean Wright said in comments to cybersecurity consultant “Google relies on the revenue of advertising, so one can see why they would make such a move.”

Wright recommends switching from Chrome to Brave and deploying a Pi-hole at home.

(We at Google Watchdog prefer Firefox.)

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Might the Department of Justice finally be ready to go after Google?

A promising development:

The Justice Department has taken early steps toward opening a federal antitrust investigation into Google, according to three people familiar with the matter, marking a new chapter in the tech giant’s troubles with regulators around the world who contend the company is too large and threatens rivals and consumers.

The move thrusts Google back under the regulatory microscope in the United States roughly six years after another federal agency probed the search and advertising behemoth on grounds that its business practices threatened competitors – though the government spared the company from major punishment at the time.

To date, only the EU authorities have taken serious action to respond to Google’s privacy blunders and anticompetitive business practices. In the United States, the response has been a shrug or a slap on the wrist or both.

But it sounds like Google’s C-Suite might have to start sweating a bit more in the near future. If this investigation is for real, it would represent a long overdue step towards accountability.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Chromium may be open source, but other parts of Google Chrome aren’t, which means Google can sabotage competitors

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow has a great piece on how Google has manipulated web standards to ensure that it can block others from creating browsers that offer the same functionality as Google Chrome.

A year ago, Benjamin “Mako” Hill gave a groundbreaking lecture explaining how Big Tech companies had managed to monopolize all the benefits of free software licenses, using a combination of dirty tricks to ensure that the tools that were nominally owned by no one and licensed under free and open terms nevertheless remained under their control, so that the contributions that software developers made to “open” projects ended up benefiting big companies without big companies having to return the favor.

Mako was focused on the ways that “software as a service” subverted free/open software licenses, but just as pernicious is “digital rights management” (DRM), which is afforded a special kind of legal protection under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act: under this rule, it’s illegal to reverse-engineer and re-implement code that has some connection with restricting access to copyrighted works. That means that once a product or service has a skin of DRM around it, the company that controls that DRM also controls who can make an interoperable product.

That’s where Google’s web-dominating Chrome browser (and its nominally free/open cousin, Chromium) come in: these have become the defacto standard for web browsing, serving as the core for browsers like Microsoft Edge and Opera.

And while you can use or adapt Chromium to your heart’s content, your new browser won’t work with most internet video unless you license a proprietary DRM component called Widevine from Google. The API that connects to Widevine was standardized in 2017 by the World Wide Web Consortium, whose members narrowly voted down a proposal to change the membership rules for the W3C to require members not to abuse the DMCA to prevent DRM from becoming a tool to undermine competition.

Prior to 2017, all W3C standards were free for anyone to implement, allowing free/open browser developers to create their own rivals to the big companies’ offerings. But now, a key W3C standard requires a proprietary component to be functional, and that component is under Google’s control, and the company will not authorize free/open source developers to use that component.

This is literally exactly what the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other opponents of standardizing DRM at the W3C predicted would happen.

Yep. A toldyaso situation if there ever was one!

Read the rest at Boing Boing.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Bloomberg shines a spotlight on Google’s anti-competitive business practices

Props to Bloomberg for running this article — it’s timely and needed.

Most major browsers are now built on the Chromium software code base that Google maintains. Opera, an indie browser that’s been used by techies for years, swapped its code base for Chromium in 2013. Even Microsoft is making the switch this year. That creates a snowball effect, where fewer web developers build for niche browsers, leading those browsers to switch over to Chromium to avoid getting left behind.

This leaves Chrome’s competitors relying on Google employees who do most of the work to keep Chromium software code up to date. Chromium is open source, so anyone can suggest changes to it, but the majority of programmers who approve contributions are Google employees, and any major disagreements get settled by a small circle of senior Google employees.

The authorities move slowly or not at all, so this problem will get worse before it gets better. Do your part to resist hegemony on the Web by using Firefox or a Firefox-derived browser instead of Google Chrome or a Chrome clone.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

Google uses Gmail to track a history of things you buy — and it’s hard to delete

A must-read from CNBC:

Google tracks a lot of what you buy, even if you purchased it elsewhere, like in a store or from Amazon.

Last week, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote a New York Times op-edthat said “privacy cannot be a luxury good.” But behind the scenes, Google is still collecting a lot of personal information from the services you use, such as Gmail, and some of it can’t be easily deleted.

A page called “Purchases ” shows an accurate list of many — though not all — of the things I’ve bought dating back to at least 2012. I made these purchases using online services or apps such as Amazon, DoorDash or Seamless, or in stores such as Macy’s, but never directly through Google.

But because the digital receipts went to my Gmail account, Google has a list of info about my buying habits.

Read the whole thing.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly

MUST-READ: “I tried creating a web browser, and Google blocked me”

The Monster of Mountain View stomps on competition again.

For the last two years I’ve been working on a web browser that now cannot be completed because Google, the creators of the open source browser Chrome [actually, Chromium; Chrome isn’t open source], won’t allow DRM in an open source project.

The browser I’m building, called Metastream, is an Electron-based (Chromium derived), MIT-licensed browser hosted on GitHub. Its main feature is the ability to playback videos on the web, synchronized with other peers. Each client runs its own instance of the Metastream browser and transmits playback information to keep them in sync—no audio or video content is sent.

Without a license for Widevine, Samuel Maddock cannot finish his browser.

But of course, Google doesn’t care.

If someone is creating a browser that wants to playback media, they’ll soon discover the requirement of DRM for larger web media services such as Netflix and Hulu. There are a few DRM providers for the web including Widevine, PlayReady, and FairPlay.

As far as I’m aware, Widevine is the only available DRM for a Chromium-based browser, especially so for Electron. Chromium accounts for roughly 70% market share of all web browsers, soon to include Microsoft’s upcoming Edge browser rewrite. Waiting 4 months for a minimal response from a vendor with such a large percentage of the market is unacceptable.

When this site was created, Google Chrome didn’t exist.

Today, Google Chrome is the most dominant browser. It is the new Internet Explorer. And in fact, even the once mighty-Microsoft has acknowledged this, because it is redeveloping Edge to use Chrome’s underlying parts, including the Blink rendering engine. Other browser makers have already done this; Opera is also a Chromium-derivative. Only Mozilla has held out, although its version of Firefox for iOS uses WebKit, an an ancestor of Blink, because Apple won’t allow Mozilla to use its own rendering engine (Gecko).

When you’re practically a monopoly, you can pretty much do whatever you want (including brutally stifling the competition) and there are no consequences.

Google is too big and too powerful. It’s a giant, faceless corporation that needs to be broken up.