February 09, 2011

One Little Word Explains Google vs. Bing "Search Theft" Debate

Greetings. With the claims and counter-claims now made, I believe we can now distill the Google vs. Bing saga of the "stolen search results" down to its essence, and emphasize in particular one simple little word that seems very much at the heart of the controversy.

Both the Bing and Google toolbars can, with certain options enabled, send users' URLs to their respective toolbar servers. Since the URLs associated with search engine queries will typically contain the users' search query terms, those searches can also be delivered to those servers.

Microsoft is particularly aggressive when it comes to their Bing toolbar. For example, required "step one" for participation in "Bing Rewards" is installation of their toolbar. And at installation time, Microsoft by default preselects the "Improve my experience" option -- which enables transmission of URLs to Microsoft. (Image of the Bing toolbar installation options defaults)

In contrast, the Google toolbar installation presents the user with an explicit choice dialogue that requires the user to select between enabling what Google calls "Enhanced Features" that transmit URLs -- or not enabling them. The "enable" choice is in bold text, but unlike in the Bing case, the user cannot click through without making an explicit choice regarding the sending of URLs. (Image of the Google toolbar installation dialogue)

Both Bing and Google offer additional information regarding the privacy implications of these choices at links provided on these dialogue pages. On balance, Google's procedure would clearly seem to increase the probability that a user will at least think a little bit about the issue of sending URLs -- before the toolbar is activated for first use. Quickly clicking through with URL transmission enabled -- without even really considering the implications one way or another -- seems significantly more likely with the Bing approach.

But let's assume for now that users of both the Google and Bing toolbars have enabled URL sending mode. What happens next?

At this stage, we move definitively beyond technology alone, and quite forcefully into the realm of that simple little word -- ethics.

Microsoft asserts forcefully that their use of Bing toolbar user URL data -- in particular Google searches -- for new URL discovery purposes is not stealing or copying, and that it's perfectly legitimate. There is no current indication that Microsoft plans to abandon this practice.

Google asserts that Microsoft's behavior in these regards is dishonest -- that it is essentially copying and stealing -- especially of unusual "long tail" search data that Google has worked very hard to find and process in the first place. In answer to my specific queries on this subject, Google has told me definitively that they do not use URL data collected by their own toolbar in such a manner. This is completely logical of course. It would be incredibly stupid for Google to so publicly complain about Microsoft engaging in a practice if Google was doing the same thing. And Google is not stupid.

So in the end, what we're faced with is not so much an issue of what it is possible to do with collected data, but rather a question of what one chooses to do with that data.

What we can do, vs. what we decide to actually do, is the sort of choice that runs throughout most aspects of our lives. It's the difference between an honest person and a cheat -- or a crook. It's the difference between a company you trust and one you distrust, not based only on what they say, but also based on how they actually behave.

It is, very much, a matter of ethics.

I'm not a lawyer. I'm not qualified to determine whether or not Microsoft's behavior with the Bing toolbar reasonably should subject them to either criminal prosecution or civil litigation.

But I do know cheating when I see it. We all do. We all saw it in school, and we've seen it in the business world as well. We were recently almost dragged into global depression by many highly-placed players in the financial community, who felt that whatever would make them wealthier was justifiable, regardless of how many other persons would be devastated in the process. That was an ethical failing of nearly epic proportions.

Microsoft's behavior with the Bing toolbar obviously does not rise to anywhere near the same level of ethical vacuity as that of those financial marauders. But on a basic level it has a very similar smell, a stink of "anything goes for a buck" cheating that still makes one a bit sick to the stomach.

Contrary to what some critics claim, all businesses are not devoid of ethics, and do not all take merely mercenary views of their customers and users.

Most businesses do want to make money -- indeed. But how they make that money, whether or not they understand and put into practice the age-old concept of "fair play" varies greatly from firm to firm, and is where the still relevant idea of ethics comes into sharp focus.

Microsoft's behavior with their Bing Toolbar, whether legal or not, fails that ethical test.

For that, we should be ashamed of them, but more importantly, they should be profoundly ashamed of themselves.


Posted by Lauren at February 9, 2011 09:07 PM | Permalink
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