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Fair Search in Europe

For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.

While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.

So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:


The Case for Fair Search

I’d been reading several intriguing reviews of a new BBC documentary series: All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Variously called ‘cerebral’, ‘bewildering’, and ‘intellectually challenging’, it seemed a very promising piece of television, so I caught it on BBC iPlayer to see it for myself.

I was disappointed. Instead of an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking documentary, the first episode of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a disjointed collection of vaguely related concepts and events, mixed up with cleverly edited visuals and sound effects in an attempt to paint a specific picture.

To be honest it looked like its creator, Adam Curtis, had a specific point to make, and instead of testing that point against reality he decided to cherry-pick from reality in order to make that point. It reeked a bit of a conspiracy theory, truth be told.

Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable with the economic aspects of the documentary, showing a small elite of financial power-brokers manipulating politics and the course of nations for their personal gain. That’s not a particularly new insight – anyone with common sense should know that.

But when he makes the leap to information technology, when he tries to lay the blame at the increased interconnectivity of the world via computers, that’s when his argumentation falls flat and the whole thing comes crumbling down like a house of cards. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to position computers as the culprit of all this evil – while in fact it’s just human greed.

The reviewers I mentioned earlier seemed to be overwhelmed by Curtis’s use of imagery and sound. But after you penetrate that façade, what remains is a fairly hollow intellectual argument. It has some merit, but it tries to make leaps and connections that are simply not there to make.

I suppose the attempt to include the certified nutcase Ayn Rand and her deranged philosophy in his argumentation doesn’t help his case. Nonetheless I’ll probably be watching the other episodes of this series, if only to see what other logic-defying leaps Curtis is willing to make.

Google is one of the biggest corporations in the world. When it was first founded it embraced a motto: “don’t be evil.” Google seemed to adhere to this motto very well for years, and people lauded the company for it.

However, since the company went public in 2004, that motto has quietly and unceremoniously been dumped. Because, you see, a publicly traded company has certain legal obligations to its shareholders with regards to cost minimisation and profit maximisation. And these obligations could never, even by the most forgiving observer, be interpreted as anything other than evil.
Don't Be Evil
For example, take Google’s approach to paying taxes. Or, more accurately, to not paying taxes. This MSNBC article explains in plain terms how Google manages to pay only 2.4% corporation tax on average – despite earning most of its revenue in countries with vastly higher corporation tax rates.

All this is fully legal, of course. The tax laws governing international business always have exploitable loopholes, and international corporations are quite eager to exploit these loopholes as much as they can.

Because these corporations, as publicly traded entities, have a legal obligation to maximise profit for their shareholders. And that means paying as little tax as they can get away with.

In this time of economic recession many governments are struggling with growing national debt and budget deficits. As legal entities that earn revenue and profit from doing business in these countries, international corporations should contribute their fair share of taxes and help support the local governments that allow them to operate and earn money there.

For Google this is doubly ironic, as it benefits so much from government-provided services. Its first algorithms were invented by Larry Page and Sergey Brin as part of a research project for Stanford University – an establishment that receives quite a lot of money from the US government’s educational budget – and Google always aims to hire the best educated graduates it can find – whose education is also mostly funded by taxpayers’ money.

So you’d think that companies like Google, which benefit so much from public systems paid for by taxpayers money, would be more than willing to pay their own fair share of taxes?

But of course corporations will do no such thing. Paying taxes may be the moral thing to do, but it certainly isn’t the profitable thing to do. And when profit maximisation is a legal obligation, being evil comes natural.

I was briefly registered at Randstad in Belfast when I was looking for work, so I wasn’t surprised when I got this email today in my Gmail inbox:

Randstad Belfast email blunder 1

Nothing wrong with that message, right? A mass mailing to their whole email database, that sounds like a good idea on the surface. What better way to get a good response than to blast it out to all your contacts?

But look a little closer…. That link at the top saying ‘show details’, where in Gmail you can see to what email addresses the message was sent….

Surely a professional organisation like Randstad wouldn’t just put all email addresses of a mass mailing in the To: field? Surely they’d use BCC or an email marketing system?

Wrong:

Randstad Belfast email blunder 2

All addresses were put in the To: field. The image above is just a tiny sample. There are no less than 1273 email addresses right there, visible for all recipients.

One of those 1200 recipients, someone greedy and web savvy, could easily sell that list to spammers for a few bucks. Or if any of those 1200 recipients has a virus or malware program running on their PC that harvests email addresses for spammers, all those addresses are going to end up on spam lists around the world in no time.

So what have we learned today, kids? That’s right, never use the To: field when sending out mass emails.

P.S. anyone want to buy a good list of 1200 email addresses?

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  • Facebook vs Google

    Apparently Facebook wants to challenge Google for the title of World Champion of Teh Interwebs. A new Wired magazine piece explains how Facebook thinks it can beat Google by using people, instead of algorithms, to fuel search:

    Facebook encourages its 200 million members to use Microsoft’s search engine, which it installed on its homepage late last year as part of the deal struck between the two companies. At press time, it was also planning to launch Facebook Search, allowing users to scour one another’s feeds. Want to see what some anonymous schmuck thought about the Battlestar Galactica finale? Check out Google. Want to see what your friends had to say? Try Facebook Search. And it will not only be for searching within Facebook. Because Facebook friends post links to outside sites, you will be able to use it as a gateway to the Web—making it a direct threat to Google.

    … In December, Facebook launched Connect, a network of more than 10,000 independent sites that lets users access their Facebook relationships without logging in to Facebook .com.

    … In April, Facebook announced its Open Stream API, allowing developers to create mashups using Facebook’s constantly updated stream of user activity.

    … Connect and Open Stream don’t just allow users to access their Facebook networks from anywhere online. They also help realize Facebook’s longtime vision of giving users a unique, Web-wide online profile.

    But where Google tries to maintain an image of transparency and trustworthiness (“Don’t be evil“), Facebook is an obvious corporate enterprise with profit on its mind, even at the expense of its users:

    In November 2007, Facebook launched Beacon, a ham-fisted attempt to inject advertising into News Feeds. Users felt violated; after a month of protest, Zuckerberg publicly apologized and effectively shut Beacon down. Then, in February 2009, Facebook quietly changed its terms of service, appearing to give itself perpetual ownership of anything posted on the site, even after members closed their accounts. Users complained so vociferously—millions joined Facebook groups and signed online petitions protesting the change—that the company was forced to backtrack. The event left many people fearful of the amount of personal information they were ceding to a private, profit-hungry enterprise.

    I’m not sure Facebook packs the punch to knock out Google’s 800-pound Gorilla.

    Credit Card Psychology

    There’s a fascinating article up on the Times website about how credit card companies are handling the recession. Not only are they doing the smart thing by refocusing on customers who can actually pay their debts, they’re also using psychology to get the most out of defaulting cardholders.

    “It’s really hard to get clean insights of a cardholder’s state of mind,” said Andy Jennings, the head of research and development at FICO, one of the biggest and oldest analytic firms. “The more subtle the insight, the more cleverness finding it requires. If someone pays for a big cable television package each month with their card, are they rich? Or does it signal they don’t have the sense to avoid products they can’t afford? If they check their balance three times a day, are they worried or uptight? We may look at 300 different characteristics just to predict their delinquency risk.”

    If a credit-card company detects unsettling patterns, it might start cutting credit lines, raising interest rates or accelerating repayment schedules. (Companies are expected to withdraw $2.7 trillion of credit by the end of 2010, according to a March report from the Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, a banking-analyst firm.) But the most useful information the card companies are deriving from their data are the insights that help them deepen their relationships with customers, particularly when a cardholder is going through a rough time. One of the strongest conclusions of the psychological studies is that cardholders are most likely to pay the bills of those companies with which they have an emotional connection.

    I don’t like credit cards for a multitude of reasons, and this article leads me to include another one: I don’t want to be psycho-analysed out of my money.

    (Via BoingBoing)

    Googlenomics 101

    More cool stuff from Wired: a superb article on Googlenomics, the auction-based economy Google runs on. An excerpt:

    “Varian is an expert on what may be the most successful business idea in history: AdWords, Google’s unique method for selling online advertising. AdWords analyzes every Google search to determine which advertisers get each of up to 11 “sponsored links” on every results page. It’s the world’s biggest, fastest auction, a never-ending, automated, self-service version of Tokyo’s boisterous Tsukiji fish market, and it takes place, Varian says, “every time you search.” He never mentions how much revenue advertising brings in. But Google is a public company, so anyone can find the number: It was $21 billion last year.”

    Everyone who’s ever done any Adwords should read this piece.

    “Googlenomics actually comes in two flavors: macro and micro. The macroeconomic side involves some of the company’s seemingly altruistic behavior, which often baffles observers. Why does Google give away products like its browser, its apps, and the Android operating system for mobile phones? Anything that increases Internet use ultimately enriches Google, Varian says. And since using the Web without using Google is like dining at In-N-Out without ordering a hamburger, more eyeballs on the Web lead inexorably to more ad sales for Google.

    The microeconomics of Google is more complicated. Selling ads doesn’t generate only profits; it also generates torrents of data about users’ tastes and habits, data that Google then sifts and processes in order to predict future consumer behavior, find ways to improve its products, and sell more ads. This is the heart and soul of Googlenomics. It’s a system of constant self-analysis: a data-fueled feedback loop that defines not only Google’s future but the future of anyone who does business online.”

    Actually, everyone that’s ever done a Google search and clicked on a sponsored result should read it too.

    Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

    Identity 2.0

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