In search of Google’s dark side

The Federal Trade Commission Thursday dropped a two-year investigation into allegations that Google was gaming search results to drive traffic to its own sites. In a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz allowed that the charges came from a staggering number of Google’s competitors, and at face value they are plausible: Google essentially controls search with something like 70 percent of the market share and, like any company with near monopoly power, might be tempted to use that advantage to slyly divert traffic away from competitors. But in a unanimous vote all five FTC commissioners agreed there was nothing to see here.

Allegations of search bias strike at the heart of what Google purports to be: an honest curator of what’s available on the web. If the FTC ruled that Google was even a little dishonest, it could have altered the public perception of the company. It might have even been something akin to an Arthur Andersen moment.

The ruling could conceivably embolden Google to push the envelope. And it certainly makes it tougher for competitors to weaken the search giant on penalties rather than fight on what the FTC has now declared is a level playing field.

But the ruling really could not have gone any other way — not only because there’s scant evidence to support Google chicanery but because the idea that Google would use its advantage so heavy-handedly just doesn’t bear up under any scrutiny.

Google, unlike some other tech companies, doesn’t thrive by luring customers into a trap in a walled garden. Its business depends on the web being a vast meadow, infinite in all directions. Google’s properties aren’t revenue plays but building blocks intended to create something quite unusual: A company that you utterly depend on but can live without, and walk away from anytime whole.

Why Web Giants would benefit from a ‘do not track’ policy

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a report recommending that browsers include a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow people to surf the web without sites collecting and sharing data about their activities. In the same way that the “Do Not Call” list hampered that ability of some (but alas, not all) telemarketers to interrupt our dinners with unwanted calls, the idea sounds like bad news for web sites that target ads based on such data.

But in the end, such a move could be just what web giants like Google and Facebook need to get their users to opt in to sharing data, rather than opting out.

Opting out of telemarketing calls is a fairly black and white decision. You either hate them or you don’t mind them. But online privacy is a much murkier affair. On the one hand, behavioral data can help sites serve ads or deliver sponsored-search results that are – theoretically, at least – of interest. Increasingly, they are being used to improve the web experiences as well, whether it’s Netflix using your viewing history to recommend new movies, or apps like Foursquare using geolocation.

Facebook privacy backlash in FTC’s hands

The grousing about Facebook’s recent privacy changes is now an official complaint.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, along with eight other groups, filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Thursday urging the regulator to open an investigation into Facebook’s new privacy settings.

FB11Facebook’s privacy changes “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook’s own representations,” reads the 29-page complaint, which accuses the world’s No.1 Internet social networking company of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.