Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ethical Competition: time to get real

Type ‘email’ into Google and what do you think comes up first in the search engine’s listings? Why, ‘Gmail’ of course. What’s wrong with promoting your own products? If you’re a search engine, quite a lot, as it turns out. Services like Kayak and Microsoft are complaining that Google’s is routing user inquiries unfairly to its own services. Now the Federal Trade Commission is investigating the anti-trust claims. If found guilty of abusing its dominant market position, Google could find itself facing its largest legal challenge yet.

In a way, it’s rich that Microsoft should be among those wagging the finger. (The US software pre-empted this latest spat with an anti-trust suit against Google in Europe back in April). For years, Microsoft used its near monopolistic position in the software market to browbeat and bully computer manufacturers into using its operating platform. It waded through endless lawsuits to carve out its place at the top. Now it’s behind the curve. The big fights are no longer over operating systems, but the interface between users and the internet. Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing, has been clinging to Google’s coattails ever since it launched. So could this be seen as a case of sour grapes? Of an underhand jab at a competitor? perhaps. But is that necessarily wrong? In our dog-eat-dog world, could it not just be described as ‘fair play’?

It is a question Mallen Baker considers in Ethical Corporation’s latest issue. Yet, interestingly, not in the context of Microsoft (and the rest) v’s Google. Instead, it’s another of today’s teutonic battles: Facebook v’s Google. A few months back, Mr Zukerberg’s  social media site was found to have hired a PR agency to push negative stories about Google privacy policies (internet freedom is a separate issue altogether, and one recently addressed by Rebecca MacKinnon in an Ethical Corporation podcast). On the face of it, what Facebook did smells wrong. But how wrong? Not legally wrong. No subpoena papers have arrived at the company’s shiny new Menlo Park headquarters. Wrong in the sense of its public image? Sure, but how many Facebook users have delisted as a result? Precious few, I suspect. Ethically wrong then? The questions get to the nub of Baker’s piece.   

“What Facebook did wasn’t nice. But then Google aiming to move into Facebook’s social networking area of dominance isn’t “nice”.

Ethics isn’t about ‘niceness’. If it were, it would have gone out of business a long time ago. It’s about principles and values. Those should certainly include a commitment to compete within the law. By that marker, Facebook and its PR agency are (as I understand it) within bounds. It should include provisions against spreading falsehood as well. Again, it’s not entirely clear if Facebook is guilty here or not. The whole affair still feels wrong, though. Which shows just how difficult it is to define ‘ethical competition’ in a competitive world. Companies should draw their own boundaries based on personal and professional conviction  – and then, within those parameters, go at it cats and dogs.

n.b. the opening statement of this post was correct at the time of writing. Rechecking now, ‘Hotmail’ comes out top. A change in algorithms in Menlo Park or are those Federal Trade Commissioners getting to work already? 

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