The Stack Archive

Telecom chief calls for Google/Facebook regulation, while Google changes search algorithm to reflect ‘fact accuracy’

Mon 2 Mar 2015

The CEO of Deutsche Telekom has made a call for internet search/services giants Google and Facebook to be regulated in the same way as telecoms companies, arguing that the California-based digital goliath offers the same type of communications services which require telcos to submit to regulation.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress, Tim Hoettges, 52, said: “There is a convergence between over-the-top web companies and classic telcos,” continuing “We need one level regulatory environment for us all.”

At the 90,000-strong symposium, Hoettges further argued that improvements should be made to spectrum policy for the telecommunications industry, and that the loosening of regulation would encourage the type of investment that governments and policy-making bodies are currently seeking from carriers.

The former Vodafone executive, who rose to head the world’s third-largest telecoms company at the beginning of 2014, also contended that policy-makers should leave telecoms groups adequate operational freedom to develop IoT-related services such as smart meters and intra-communicating cars, commenting: “We favour net neutrality, but we need to be allowed to have quality classes to enable new services in the Internet of Things.”

Hoettges’ call comes in the lee of The New Scientist’s revelation that Google intends to change its search-results ranking algorithm based on the accuracy of facts within the web pages that it trawls, and has received some criticism for seeking to define ‘truth’ based on popular sources. The article notes that Google’s current search rankings depend on incoming links, and is therefore subject to manipulation (not to mention ‘Google Bombs’), and says:

‘A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy,” says the team (arxiv.org/abs/1502.03519v1). The score they compute for each page is its Knowledge-Based Trust score.’

Interest in the possible government regulation of Google grows in line with the ever-expanding services, reach and influence of Mountain View’s empire, which is currently estimated to be worth $33bn (still $23bn less than Apple).

In a more-or-less damning series of articles at the Huffington Post in 2012, Dr. Robert Epstein laid out some of the most popular arguments for the regulation of Google, partially-based on evidence, fines following controversies such as the extraction of wifi data during the gathering of photographic information for Google Maps, and partially on his view of Google’s real place in the economy as an ungoverned monopoly. Dr Epstein argued:

‘Google and the two other major companies (Microsoft and Yahoo) that together handle more than 95 percent of the world’s online searches must ultimately be regulated, because information is power, and search engines have become the main way we access virtually all information. No private, unregulated company should have the kind of power Google has amassed. To leave power of this magnitude in the hands of corporate executives or, worse yet, inscrutable automated bots — no matter how benign and well-meaning and snoogly-googly they claim to be — would be imprudent, if not insane.’

Much of Epstein’s argument revolves around the power that is wielded and the companies and interests which are humbled or destroyed every time that Google changes the way that it ranks results about the web pages it knows about, known in the SEO industry as the ‘Google Dance’*. The rest is largely centred around the contention that Google is effectively a monopoly.

The latter fact was disputed the same year by researcher Mark A. Jamison of the University of Florida in a paper [PDF] entitled Should Google Search Be Regulated as a Public Utility? After disputing the case for regulation of Google on four key points by which a monopoly is objectively defined, Jamison concludes that ‘Google search is not a common carrier. A common carrier, such as a railroad or a telecommunications carrier, offers its service to the public, and the service consists of moving someone’s goods or content from one place to another.’

Facebook has not faced nearly as much pressure to be regulated, despite its enormous reach, perhaps because it is not investing in infrastructure as Google is, or because of the ever-present wait for the ‘next Facebook’ – a strand of paranoia which casts very little shadow on Google. However both companies offer the abilities through their API kits for users to log in to third-party services via their own accounts (much as this site does with the LinkedIn API) – in the case of Facebook, the high availability of Facebook login credentials half-convinced the UK government in 2010 to consider Facebook logins as a ‘universal ID by proxy’, having already expressed interest in using it as a citizen’s forum to suggest spending cuts. A year later, the August riots reversed this position.

* Opinion Having established, edited or run a large number of websites over the last 15 years, I – along with anyone else in a similar position – have had my personal fortunes greatly affected for better and worse by the latest autumn iteration of the ‘Google Dance’. Changes in Google’s ranking criteria killed one of my businesses and made another terribly successful during a later algorithm-change. For me there is little doubt of the power that Google has over the digital economy in this respect. The question that remains is whether regulation might not take us out of the frying pan and into the fire; who do you trust to ‘not be evil’ at the moment?


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