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Google+ Search Controversy Grows

Twitter and privacy experts cry foul over Google's inclusion of
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Google's decision to integrate Google+ photos and posts into its search results pages through an initiative called Search plus Your World has prompted a complaint from Twitter and raises the possibility of further government scrutiny.

Twitter said in a statement that it expects Google's changes will make it harder for people to find tweets, to the detriment of Twitter, news organizations, and users of both services.

Certainly there's an element of truth in this: Given a page with a limited number of search results, Google's decision to add results from Google+ (if not overridden by users) will leave less room for Web content that otherwise would have been presented by Google's search algorithm.

Publishers have been dealing with this for years. In 2007, when Google introduced its Universal Search, it made content from different indices--videos, images, news, maps, and books--available on the same page as website search results. The fact that Google is making some companies unhappy doesn't necessarily mean its actions are unlawful.

[ How does Search plus Your World work? Read Google Marries Google+ To Search Results. ]

As Google noted in a Google+ post earlier this week, Twitter "chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer." However, "chose" may not be the best word to describe Twitter's decision not to renew the deal, since Google's undisclosed terms may have left the company with little choice.

The agreement expedited Google's access to tweets so they could show up as real-time search results. With the conclusion of that deal, Google must crawl tweets like other Web content and process them to make them available in its search index and on its search results pages.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) suggested that Google's changes make personal data more accessible and noted that it had urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into whether Google was giving its own content preference over non-Google content on YouTube. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, told the Los Angeles Times that his organization might complain to the FTC about Google's search changes as well.

Google cannot afford to ignore such complaints. Both Google and Facebook this year settled FTC privacy investigations by agreeing to audits for 20 years. Google is also under scrutiny over antitrust concerns related to its search advertising business in both the United States and in Europe.

At the same time, Google may be making a strategically sound move. Facebook, the dominant social network, withholds its content from Google. If Google ends up being forced to accommodate competitors in its products, then Facebook could be forced to comply with similar rules. That is, unless Google is special.

Harvard assistant professor Benjamin Edelman, a frequent critic of Google and occasional consultant for Google's competitors, argues just that. In analysis published on his website he states, "Google's dominant position in search requires that the company hold itself to a higher level of conduct, including avoiding tying its other products to its dominant search service."

His remedy is that Google should let users swap Google services for competitors' offerings, citing as a precedent the ability of desktop operating system users to choose their preferred Web browser, media player, email program, and other applications. "[A] user at Google.com has zero ability to eschew Google Maps for Mapquest, or to replace Google Places reviews with Yelp," he says.

Yet if dominance is the rationale for granting a competitor access to the market leader's product space, then Facebook should be allowing users to run Google+, MySpace, or iTunes Ping, Apple should be providing iPhone users with the option to run browsers from Microsoft, Mozilla, and Google, and Microsoft should be making accommodations for Windows PCs to boot into Chrome OS, Mac OS, or Linux.

A Google spokesperson was not immediately available but was able to provide a lengthy list of legal experts who have expressed skepticism about the possibility that Search plus Your World might increase the likelihood of antitrust action against the company. For example, former FTC policy director David Balto told Law 360, "This isn't going to move the enforcement meter even a millimeter. This kind of integration is something that consumers should cheer for."

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