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Google could face regulatory headwinds in the US

Google does have an outsize effect on how we live. Businesses can rarely survive being ranked outside the first three pages of its search results. Going any deeper into the results is akin to searching for grammatical accuracy in Trump’s tweets. And it can impact elections.

columns Updated: Aug 31, 2018 16:53 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. (AP)

They ought to have a fairly loud party in Mountain View in California’s Silicon Valley on Tuesday. After all, the most prominent company in that area, if not the world, Google, will complete 20 years that day, two decades since it was formed in nearby Menlo Park. But if any drinks are served, they will be spiked with stress.

Google, the gigantic transnational firm, is probably facing the toughest phase in its existence. That isn’t being helped by American President Donald Trump taking a direct swipe at its search results, even as the absence of CEO Sundar Pichai gets some bipartisan blasting for opting to skip a Senate hearing the day after the anniversary. Perhaps he has enough clarity to foresee the drama that would accompany his appearance, as was the case of the hearings featuring Facebook chief, Mark Zuckerberg, this April.

Trump, of course, has his own political agenda, that of getting Google’s algorithm to stop featuring nasty hits at him at the top of its search results. But, in keeping with his ego, he could provide an ugly scenario for the company, with dark mutterings of antitrust investigations in Washington. Strangely enough, his foes from across the aisle joined him in deploring Google’s activities. What will make them even more willing to target Google is that the company may have bowed to Beijing by agreeing to allow censorship of its Dragonfly mobile search app.

Google does have an outsized effect on how we live. Businesses can rarely survive being ranked outside the first three pages of its search results. Going any deeper into the results is akin to searching for grammatical accuracy in Trump’s tweets. And it can have an impact elections. This is not one of the US president’s usual delusions: a research article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, in 2015, showed that search engine manipulation could significantly affect the behaviour of vulnerable voters. Search is a battleground. For example, the UC browser on Chinese-made smartphones is a tool of its own policy, if not propaganda. Also, as we know, there are plenty of players, including national entities, willing to hack their way to creating chaos, and search engine optimisation has long been a professional pursuit in the digital realm.

But search isn’t the only sector where Google is getting criticised. Its Android platform is making the European Union use that loaded “monopoly” word. Google’s digital footprint is expansive, with a commanding presence in email, media, maps and classifieds, among many other fields.

That sort of dominance isn’t going down well with politicians, who are loath to share power. That could very well mean that Google could face regulatory headwinds in the US, with its own trickledown effect throughout the world. That’s not the sort of icing it would have liked on its 20th birthday cake.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 31, 2018 16:52 IST