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Volume 12 / Issue 12

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DOI:   10.3217/jucs-012-12-1731


Restricting the View and Connecting the Dots — Dangers of a Web Search Engine Monopoly

Narayanan Kulathuramaiyer (University Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia)

Wolf-Tilo Balke (L3S Research Center and University of Hannover, Germany)

Abstract: Everyone realizes how powerful the few big Web search engine companies have become, both in terms of financial resources due to soaring stock quotes and in terms of the still hidden value of the wealth of information available to them. Following the common belief that "information is power" the implications of what the data collection of a de-facto monopolist in the field like Google could be used for should be obvious. However, user studies show that the real implications of what a company like Google can do, is already doing, and might do in a not too distant future, are not explicitly clear to most people.

Based on billions of daily queries and an estimated share of about 49% of the total Web queries [Colburn, 2007], allows predicting with astonishing accuracy what is going to happen in a number of areas of economic importance. Hence, based on a broad information base and having the means to shift public awareness such a company could for instance predict and influence the success of products in the market place beyond conventional advertising or play the stock market in an unprecedented way far beyond mere time series analysis. But not only the mining of information is an interesting feature; with additional services such as Google Mail and on-line communities, user behavior can be analyzed on a very personal level. Thus, individual persons can be targeted for scrutiny and manipulation with high accuracy resulting in severe privacy concerns.

All this is compounded by two facts: First, Google's initial strategy of ranking documents in a fair and objective way (depending on IR techniques and link structures) has been replaced by deliberatively supporting or ignoring sites as economic or political issues are demanding [Google Policy: Censor, 2007]. Second, Google's acquisition of technologies and communities together with its massive digitization projects such as [Burright, 2006] [Google Books Library, Project, 2006] enable it to combine information on issues and persons in a still more dramatic way. Note that search engines companies are not breaking any laws, but are just acting on the powers they have to increase shareholder value. The reason for this is that there are currently no laws to constrain data mining in any way. We contend that suitable internationally accepted laws are necessary. In their absence, mechanisms are necessary to explicitly ensure web content neutrality (which goes beyond the net neutrality of [Berners-Lee, 2006]) and a balanced distribution of symbolic power [see Couldry, 2003]. In this paper we point to a few of the most sensitive issues and present concrete case studies to support our point. We need to raise awareness to the threat that a Web search engine monopoly poses and as a community start to discuss the implications and possible remedies to the complex problem.

Keywords: Web mining, search engines and information retrieval, social issues

Categories: H.3.0, I.2.6, K.4.2, K.5.2