Open Source, Closed Doors: Notes on Google’s Congressional Hearing

Google Congressional Hearing

Tensions ran high last Wednesday as Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt fielded a barrage of inquiries about Google’s business practices. When accused of “cooking” search results to favor Google’s own products, Schmidt’s voiced tightened in response, “Senator, I can assure we haven’t cooked anything.”

The prosecution attempted to paint Google as a corporation that gives its own services preferential treatment through its search tool (you know, the one that’s used by most of the planet).

The Congressional inquisition arises amidst Google’s “acquisition binge”, wherein it has bought out restaurant review site Zagat, digital coupon broker Zave Networks, and has proposed to buy Motorola Mobility for a whopping $12.5 billion.

Google’s growth into these many markets is ruffling the feathers of competitors who say the search giant is stacking the deck in their favor – and killing off competitors in the process.

Unsurprisingly, Eric Schmidt has a different story to tell.

Through Google, companies have a more active proving ground than ever, he argues. Google creates a hyperactive terrain of competition that actually catalyzes competition-driven evolution of products and services in the global market.

Under the secret algorithm that runs Google Search, search results are more accurate and relevant than ever, Schmidt said. Companies vying for the coveted front-page position must pit their quality of service against that of competitors and the more “relevant” company will always win. However, the measure for this relevancy is a secret algorithm that only Google knows.

The reason for this secrecy is a good one: Were the world to know the intricacies of the equation that floats “relevant content” to the top of search results, shady companies might game it for their own advantage. That is, Bootleg Inc. could become the number one result for the search term “internet films”.

Not only would this be bad for Google, it’d be bad for the user, who would virtually never get the accurate, informative and helpful results Google (usually) provides.  This bit of secrecy for the sake of everyone is Google’s only hidden practice. Schmidt was quick to describe the mobile platform Android as a successful, transparent model that cultivates competition in the mobile app environment.

The entire operating system is open source and makes all its intricacies visible to user and developers who feel they might be able to add or subtract from what Google has laid out. This has fostered creative competition not only in the production of Android applications, but also in iPhone app development, which must struggle to stay competitive or at least consistent with versions on Android devices. Just because Google offers a Deals application doesn’t mean it is the only one available, nor does it mean it is the best. A surprisingly active review community offers honest insights as to the quality of an application and Google is not always the five-star choice.

Google, whose name has become synonymous with ‘Internet search’, has grown their search tool into a public utility; used the world over, Google Search has amassed the power to build up businesses with a front-page blessing or literally drop pages off the face of the Internet. The company will have to work hard to prove the harmlessness and benefits of their efforts as they grow to an even more powerful stature in the future.

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