It is less than 30 years since a small group of three computer science students at a Canadian university were bemoaning how hard it was to find things on a computer network.
Exasperated, one of them, a young man called Alan Emtage, wrote a bit of code that could sort through files on a database and find the one you wanted.
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He called it Archie and said he only invented it because he was too lazy to do the laborious job of hunting through files for the right terms.
But before long, his program was being used by half the internet users in Canada.
Alan Emtage had invented the concept of a search engine. And if you don’t believe me, just google him.
Because that’s what we do now – we google things. It’s the company that became first an idea, then a verb, and then a portal to everything.
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Many of us now use Google products for our email, our maps, for our word processing. We use YouTube to entertain ourselves and the Android operating system to run many of our mobile phones.
It has, in less than 20 years, grown from a bright idea to being one of the very biggest and most influential companies in the world.
And like other huge technology firms, it now finds itself pitted against regulators who are wary of the power it wields over our life.
Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Intel have all had battles with the European Commission before, and some of those settlements have been huge. But few of those battles appear to have offered such a profound threat to a company’s business model.
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In essence, what the Commission has said is that it is no longer enough for Google to claim credit for creating its search engine.
It may be an extraordinarily clever bit of technology but it is so much part of our life that the focus has had to move further – away from the simple act of ownership, and instead on to the way in which that technology is managed.
The Commission is saying that the ability to search the internet is so intrinsic to our modern life, and Google is so dominant in that world of search, that the company cannot be trusted to manage itself. And a quick look at the search results shows why they came up with that conclusion.
Take, as an example, the term “Puma Shoes”. The top hits are all from companies who sell these products and have paid to secure a prominent position on the page. The offers come from Puma itself, and other shoe retailers.
But what you don’t see for a while are either giant international retailers, such as Amazon, or else other shopping comparison websites, like Kelkoo. The Commission says that it because Google is making a particular effort to hide away the companies it considers will be its biggest rivals – either now or in the future.
Google says its algorithms are designed to help its users see the content they want to see, and that the Google Shopping hits at the top of the page are clearly marked as sponsored content.
But its critics – and there are many – say that Google is exploiting its position relentlessly, favouring those who pay it the most, putting at risk the mass of other retailers, including the price comparison site Foundem, whose owners made the original complaint against Google the best part of a decade ago.
On Tuesday I spoke to one of the people who lodged that complaint, Foundem’s co-founder Shivaun Raff. She remains angry that, in her opinion, Google spent years marginalising her company’s presence on the internet, but she reflects that pursuing this case was worth the time, effort and stress.
“Today was the guilty verdict and that means a huge amount,” she told me. “Google will have to change. Searches may look superficially similar in the future, but the information will be different.
“You will be put in touch with different, innovative companies who supply the services you actually want. This is an important, and a good, day.”
Google will battle on. It has expensive lawyers and pockets that are as deep as you can imagine. A company that has £130bn in the bank can afford a fight.
But the Commission is a fighting machine, too, and not one that likes to back down.
It has stared into the world’s biggest tech companies, and carried on punching. And remember – it has the law on its side. Even for Google, that’s a tough fight to win.
Source: SKY News