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Google are Evil, or how you never 'see' the real Web

Google are evil. There, I've said it. We all think it and it's time we spoke up about it, and tried to do something about it. Why is Google evil? Because they control what you think, how you live your life, and the decisions you make whilst living it. Surely not! I hear you cry. Well, let me explain...

It's all down to one simple thing: Information. As the old adage goes, Knowledge is Power. Google control the Knowledge, and therefore have all the Power.

Let's start at the beginning...

When the Internet was young, it became quickly apparent that some sort of index would need to be created, so that people could find things more easily. The First Era of Search provided only static lists of links to pages, which became quickly out of date for obvious reasons. Paradoxically, these lists were also published in dead-tree format and made available in all good bookshops. For a brief period in the mid 1990s, being given a 'Big Book of Internet Links' as a Birthday or Christmas gift was a great thing, and had us rushing to our monolithic Windows 95 machines to try out some of the more obscure links listed within. These static lists were basically the only way early Internet users could find information that wasn't stored on the major news or brand websites. In the mid 1990s, big information sites like such as Wikipedia had yet to exist, and even the venerable IMDB had not yet left Cardiff University for its permanent home at imdb.com.

The problem with these static lists was that a select few controlled what was listed, and in what order or prominence. If the elite few didn't agree with or didn't like a site then it never got listed. To not be listed in the early days, was the death knell for websites. No matter how you look at it, free service or not, this was censorship. Think of it akin to a Librarian hiding books in a Public Library because they personally didn't agree with the content or subject matter.

The Second Era of Search is where this all changed. It ushered in a new concept; The search index. What made these systems different is that they wandered around the web recording what they saw, and made that information available to anyone who asked via a few choice keywords. Type in 'Dancing Hamsters' and you would be rewarded with a page of links to other pages containing dancing hamsters. Exactly what you wanted. No filtering, no censorship, and no promotion of your local government's or a global corporation's elite dancing hamsters.

It is important to note that Google was not a pioneer during the Second Era - they came late to that party, long after Yahoo!, AltaVista, WebCrawler and Lycos had already pitched their successful search engine tents.

The great thing about the Second Era was competition. With so many usable search indexes to choose from, the search providers had to stay honest, or wither on the vine. If you felt that Yahoo! wasn't serving up the page that you were pretty sure was out there, you could hop on over to Lycos or AltaVista and try the same query there and check for different results. Keeping users loyal to a single search provider was very important, and this was achieved (in the most part) by providing accurate, unbiased results. When a provider broke this cardinal rule (usually due to having been purchased by a parent company that over-exerted its new influence) that provider very quickly found itself out of favour with the Internet user base at large and thus found its very existence threatened.

Enter The Third Era of Search, where Google finally joins the fray and commercialisation of the Internet and the ever growing cost of bandwidth has eaten up most of the other search providers. The Third Era saw an effort to head off the young upstart of Google, where the few remaining established search providers started bolting on ever esoteric features that distracted from the core search service, which just left users lost in a sea of irrelevant options and pseudo walled gardens. During this phase Google stuck to its design guns and kept its site simple and clean (although there was iGoogle, but that was never the default experience).

At the end of the Third Era, there were only two relevant search providers still standing; Google and Microsoft, and Microsoft only survived by setting MSN, and later Bing, as the default home page on every new Internet Explorer install. Despite this, Google now had most of the search provider market, and that's when it turned evil.

We're now in the Fourth Era of Search, Google has the market sewn up, and have leveraged what they know about the information on the Internet and more importantly, what they know about the users of the Internet into a whole raft of services; News, Maps, Images, YouTube, Mail, and the newest poster child, Google+.

All of these services are free, and there is a saying that goes something like this: If you are not paying for the product, then you ARE the product. When using Google services, this could not be more true. Every query you enter, every result you click on, every page you visit, Google is tracking you. A profile is being built reflecting your habits, your interests, your secret vices. All this information is then used to tailor what type of Internet you see.

For example, at its most base level and an actual recent search experience of mine, if you are in the UK and you search for linux from scratch, you'll see as the first result a .co.uk, and as the second result a .org. The .org is actually the site you'll be wanting, as it's been around for years, and is linked to by many other sites. However, the .co.uk result is listed above it, because Google knows you are in the UK, and feels that prioritising UK websites above all others makes the results more relevant to you. Whether or not you think this is a good thing is down to personal preference, but in this instance, the co.uk result is a dummy blog site with placeholder text that has been around (at time of writing) for less than a year, and clearly is not in use yet.

Google believes in Personal Search. This is where they tailor each result set to the user posing the query. They have extensively expanded and improved their algorithms to enable them to do this. It also means that they have the ability to hide or promote any site they choose to. If Google wanted to hide any reference to the Arab Spring or champion Julian Assange they could do so quite easily (and they do for some things), and you would be none the wiser.

Therefore, in short, Google control the Internet to such an extent that it should be called the Googlenet. They are the gatekeepers of the web, and can manipulate who sees what information. If they decide a site or page should be buried, it becomes a trivial task for them to exclude it from all results, or just your results, or even just the results displayed in your country. This gives them an unthinkable amount of power. If there was a country trying to exert the same sort of control over people in the real world, the United Nations (and in particular, the US who've always fancied themselves as the World Police) would be up in arms against that nation. Back in cyberspace however, it's just accepted because Google makes the Web oh-so-convenient. All it takes is a small tweak to Google's algorithms and suddenly everyone is seeing pages claiming that Iran is secretly pointing nukes at the USA, or the USA is murdering suspected terrorists all over the world in secret torture camps. If enough people read the same 'facts' it becomes assumed that those 'facts' are true - this is classic group-think.

Google are a commercial entity. They exist to make money, and to use that money to make even more money, and they are using you to make that happen. It is not in their interests to provide an un-biased service. At some point they need to be held accountable for the way they manipulate the presentation of information on the web - until then we all need to remove our Google tinted glasses once in a while and find our information another way.

-August 2012