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Consumers could pay for Google's power

The Internet giant offers an abundance of popular free services and now plans to create its own computer operating system. What the company is capable of raises concern.

July 09, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

At first glance, Google's latest plan for global domination sounds very cool.

Everyone's favorite pedal-to-the-metal, innovate-or-die tech company is throwing its Mensa-level brainpower behind the development of a computer operating system to rival Microsoft's Windows.

But that's why you want to be worried.

"They have so much market power, you've got to be concerned that they'll use that power in a way others can't compete with," said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer best known for spearheading opposition to Microsoft Corp.'s once-market-dominating practices.

Google may give away its Chrome operating system for free, just as it does its Chrome browser, its Gmail Web mail, its Google Maps, its Google News and, of course, its team-to-beat search engine.

Google also gives away access to YouTube and all sorts of other nifty offerings, including Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Groups and its Android operating system for cellphones.

Google's your best tech buddy.

Until, that is, it's not.

"Google accounts for an ungodly share of the money that flows through the Web space," Reback said. "That creates a lot of concern."

OK, let's take a deep breath. Nobody's even seen Google's new operating system yet, so it could be the Cadillac of computer software or it could be just another Chevy.

Also, let's remember that not everything Google touches turns to cyber-gold (case in point, the company's Froogle shopping service).

"At this point, Google still has a long way to go before conquering the world," said Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, a digital rights watchdog.

Still, I get nervous whenever a big company controls hefty portions of any particular market, even when its success rests largely on building better mousetraps. And I get extra nervous whenever a company controls huge volumes of customer data, which it can leverage for commercial gain without a second thought about people's privacy.

And I get extra, extra nervous when I think about how competition can be stifled because a company is so dominant, it enjoys market power that not only makes it hard for rivals to put up a fight but also prevents fresh-faced upstarts from gaining a toehold.

"As a consumer, it's hard to complain when you're being given incredible new things for free," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But who knows where this ends up."

In a sense, we've been down this road before. Microsoft was so all-powerful for a while, it took the U.S. government and the attorneys general of 20 states to step in and give the company what for.

Google has clearly gone to school on Microsoft's comeuppance. Most famously, Google coined "Don't Be Evil" as its unofficial motto, a none-too-subtle jab at the company once known in tech circles as the Evil Empire. Yet just because Google has learned to smile, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the sort of software maker you want to bring home and introduce to your mom.

"They've presented a more kindly face and don't seem as threatening," said Reback, the antitrust lawyer. "But in a sense, they're just smarter than Microsoft was."

That's what scares me.

Yes, Google makes cool stuff, and they give it away free, and I use their products every day. In fact, I couldn't imagine doing my job without Google's help. But it's that level of dependence on my part and that of millions of others that makes Google so troublesome.

The company seems determined to be at the center of an increasingly networked world, to play a role in everything we see and do any time our fingers touch a keyboard or mouse.

It's awkward questioning the intent of someone who gives you stuff for free. But even the most trusting among us has to wonder what the larger purpose is here.

Google obviously has a plan. At this point, we can only guess what that may be.

But the more Google extends its tentacles, the more we need to ask how comfortable we'd be if the company succeeds in controlling people's online and offline computing experiences.

We didn't like it when Microsoft tried to do it. It wouldn't be any better this time around.


David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays and occasionally in between. Send your tips or feedback to

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