From ‘Don’t be evil’ to anti-trust: Google turns 25
Behind the playful ambience, the tech giant faces allegations of attempting to crush competition and monopolise the smartphone market.
In 1998, almost a quarter of a century after its founding, Microsoft found itself facing a legal challenge. The hearing for the landmark United States vs Microsoft began in May, with district attorneys challenging the company’s strategy of bundling its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system, making it the default option for users who wanted to surf the web.
At around this time, 25 years ago, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Stanford University professors Rajeev Motwani and Terry Winograd were working on a paper titled What Can You Do With a Web in Your Pocket? The primary objective of the paper was to explore ways to automate the process of extracting data (mainly relating to books and authors) from across the world wide web using lines of code.
The secondary objective of their research was to develop a global ranking of web pages — they called it called PageRank — based on the link structure of the web. There was a third objective: To use PageRank to develop “a novel search engine called Google, which also makes heavy use of anchor text”. Google, the company, was founded in October 1998, a few months after the Microsoft antitrust trial began.
It was named after the number googol (1 followed by 100 zeroes), to indicate that the search engine would essentially act as a gateway to all information.
The next few years were heady. In 1999, the now-defunct search engine Excite turned down an opportunity to buy Google for as little as $750,000. Soon after, the start-up moved from marketing manager Susan Wojcicki’s garage to offices in Mountain View.
Google was the beating heart of the new internet economy, the coolest place to work, a company that was transforming the world, one that escaped the dot-com bust not just unscathed, but stronger. The company’s motto, “Don’t be evil”, seemed to herald a new corporate culture.
In 2000, Google started selling ads, but these were pure text. The company imposed severe restrictions on what could be advertised, and what couldn’t. In 2004, the web mail service Gmail was launched — hardly revolutionary, but offering a heady free gigabyte of storage. And, accounts were initially offered only by invitation. A Gmail account meant that one was in, connected, unlike the fuddy-duddies who used Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.
Google rode the blogging boom with the acquisition of Pyre Labs’ Blogspot. They acquired YouTube, a behemoth in its own right. They released the Chrome browser, shattering the stranglehold that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had on the market.
Next came Google’s Android system for mobile phones. They even took on the Chinese, by telling users in that country that their government was censoring information, and walking away from the lucrative Chinese market after Operation Aurora, a state-sponsored cyberattack on Google and other tech companies, targeted, among others, the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents.
A quarter of a century on, Google is facing the same kind of regulatory scrutiny and criticism that faced Microsoft in 1998. Among the issues: the bundling of Google Search as the default search engine for Android and iOS, essentially covering the entire mobile market.
Where Microsoft used its position as the primary operating system for PCs to sign contracts with original equipment manufacturers to make its Internet Explorer the default browser on Windows machines, Google paid smartphone makers and web browsers (a total of $26.3 billion in 2021 alone) to make its search the default, allowing it to monopolise the market for online ads.
There’s also the ongoing suit by Epic Games. Epic introduced a patch to its popular Fortnite game that allowed players to buy in-game currency with real-world money, bypassing the 30% fee that Google would have charged if the same transactions were made via Google PlayStore. Google responded by pulling Fortnite from the platform, and Epic responded with an anti-trust lawsuit.
There are other issues, including the growing perception that while Google has become adept at scaling, it has stopped being innovative; and that its highly paid employees have become part of an increasingly bureaucratic, risk-averse system. It is said that the company culture rewards people who work on new products and services, not those who maintain products once they are launched. A dedicated Google Graveyard website (killedbygoogle.com) tracks discontinued Google products and lists 146 since 2007, with four more likely soon.
There are issues around people. Two years ago, Timnit Gebru, a leader of Google’s Ethical AI team, was fired for co-authoring a paper that highlighted issues with bias in artificial intelligence-driven large language models, and the exorbitant amounts of energy and resources required to create these.
Earlier this year, when Google announced massive layoffs, employees were stunned by the way these were conducted (some found out when their company ID cards flashed red instead of green as they tried to enter their offices in the morning).
For now, the anti-trust cases are the biggest threat to the search giant. In the US, both political parties, usually diametrically opposed on each issue, seem to be seeing eye to eye on this: the idea that Google is a monopoly, and bad for the market.