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Has the time come to regulate Google search?

It seems there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Search engine giant Google was in the news last week as it faced uneasy questions on its role as a near-monopoly search engine both in India and the US. N Madhavan writes.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2011 22:13 IST
N Madhavan

It seems there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Search engine giant Google was in the news last week as it faced uneasy questions on its role as a near-monopoly search engine both in India and the US.

In India, Arindam Chaudhuri, who runs a controversial business school, the Indian Institute of Planning & Management, sued Google for defamation, seeking R50 crore because the search engine throws up results that have content that is allegedly libellous to his reputation.

At the same time, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission launched an enquiry into whether its practices involved unfair competition.

The question of defamation in a search string is relatively easier for regulators or judges to decide, because a search engine is only like a camera - it cannot be blamed if the object it presents looks in a certain way.

But the more profound question is whether Google employs search rules that actually keep away competition. The details of the US case are not yet out as all the company has got so far is a summons (subpoena) from the FTC.

"Using Google is a choice-and there are lots of other choices available to [users] for getting information: other general-interest search engines, specialised search engines, direct navigation to websites, mobile applications, social networks, and more," Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, wrote on the company blog.

However, European Union regulators opened an investigation last November to find out whether Google is abusing its power in online search.

Some weeks ago, I met a bright British couple, Shivaun and Adam Raff, who founded a "vertical" search engine called Foundem. This engine essentially throws up refined searches - in a sense narrowing the results to more useful ones. If you are looking for flight information, the engine zeroes in on particular flight detail, not just the page of an airline or travel agency. Similarly, it enables price comparisons of products.

But then Google is no longer a "horizontal" player and has its own vertical searches. It also has sub-categories in which its own properties show up at the top of its searches. It is important to note that Google entered the online travel sector with a $700-million purchase of flight data firm ITA Software. To that extent, it is both a content analyser and content owner. Is there a conflict of interest in Google's role as a "general interest" and "specialised" search engine and as content analyser and content owner?

Google has its spam filters that are meant to keep out content that try to rig results against user relevance. Foundem's argument is that such filter codes hinders genuine vertical search firms such as itself.

The problem is that Google does not disclose its secret algorithms that sift the content.

"Here, Google is not applying its principles of transparency," said Shivaun Raff, whose firm has also been trying to see if Indian regulators, such as the Competition Commission of India, need to look into the matter.

The simple fact is that regulators also need to learn on the issue. Google cannot be punished for merely sifting through cyberspace, but whether it is keeping out potential competitors, unwittingly or otherwise, needs to be examined.