Researchers at the University of Graz in Austria have produced a staggering “Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google” that in nearly 200 pages goes through various social and ethical issues raised by Google’s activities: “Google’s open aim is to know everything there is to know on Earth,” the researchers concluded. “It cannot be tolerated that a private company has that much power: it can extort, control, and dominate the world at will.”

Europeans are much more distrustful of corporations than Americans, who distrust government but trust, to a surprising degree, huge multinational corporations. Data protection and data mining, and privacy, are issues one hears more about from European colleagues. The legal principle of moral rights is important in Europe and doesn’t exist in the U.S.A.

There are many things in this study to consider, but what jumps out for me is the possibility – which I’d heard of, but never seem much about – that Google is essentially selling top places in its search results. I’ve met people who simply assumed that this was the case (and didn’t, for the record, seem especially concerned about it). From a reference publisher’s perspective, though, it’s quite disturbing to read about the suspicions that Wikipedia’s high rankings result not from the size and frequency of updates to their content but from an arrangement of some kind between Wikipedia and Google. The words that come to mind are monopoly and collusion. Hey, and isn’t that what government’s are good for, stopping such evil corporate practices to protect citizens’ access to information and to ensure the benefits of competition?

This report is going to make sobering bedtime reading, and if it’s as thought-provoking as it appears on a quick survey, I can see it provoking a good deal of debate in the publishing and library industry. I’d love to see it discussed in schools, too; my kids and I were talking about Google at lunch today and agreed that the design of the search screen was  the key to its early success.




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