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Summary:

Google, Facebook and Amazon have shown us again this week why the combination of a quasi-monopoly, vested interests and an inscrutable algorithm can be a dangerous thing for internet users, since it allows them to influence what we see, know and buy

The internet is a wondrous thing — a limitless universe of content and products and information, all of which can be summoned up from the comfort of a chair or the palm of the hand, like some sort of science-fiction dream from centuries ago. Unfortunately, the reality is that massive quasi-monopolies control a large part of that universe, and their self-interested choices and black-box algorithms shape and in some cases define what we see, what we can search for and what we can buy.

This week has brought lessons in all of those areas from Google, Amazon and Facebook, each one a cautionary tale about the sci-fi future we live in. So here’s a roundup of the latest bad behavior by the platforms we use (or are used by) as we go about our increasingly digital lives. If we’re missing any other good examples, please let us know in the comment section below.

Amazon throws its weight around

To take the most recent example first, the online bookseller has dramatically escalated its battle with Hachette, one of its suppliers, by not only showing the company’s titles as unavailable in some cases, but mucking around with how they are categorized, so that they are (presumably) more difficult to find. As our Laura Owen describes in her post on the issue, this is a clear example of the online retailer throwing its weight around simply because it can, and its behavior has drawn fire from many who see it as a monopolistic tactic:

Why it matters: Some argue that Amazon isn’t doing anything that different from what many retailers do when they are trying to put pressure on their suppliers — physical retailers like Walmart are notorious for squeezing the companies that supply their goods so that they can get better terms. But Amazon arguably has a market share in ebook sales that dwarfs anything in the “real” world, and by hiding or making it difficult to find specific titles (including a book about Amazon itself) it renders them literally unavailable in ways a physical store could not.

What you can do about it: To be honest, not that much. Obviously, searching for and buying books from other retailers is one way to fight back against Amazon’s behavior — but many other online outlets such as Barnes & Noble are unappealing, in part because competition from Amazon has forced them to cut back on the books they carry and has made them less useful.

Google’s black-box algorithm strikes again

The search giant is the undisputed king of the proprietary, unfathomable algorithm, and this week it showed again why that is a dangerous and frustrating thing, after Metafilter founder Matt Haughey described in detail how his 15-year-old online community — known for its high-quality content — saw its traffic decline sharply following an update to the Google indexing algorithm. Reliant on Google not only for the bulk of its traffic but also the bulk of its advertising revenue, Metafilter has had to lay off almost half of its staff.

Why it matters: Just as Amazon does for books, Google has a market share in both search and search-related advertising that dwarfs any of its competitors, and so it is the default way for users to find things. If you don’t appear until page five of the Google search results for a specific term, you might as well not exist at all. And because Google’s algorithm is proprietary, it says virtually nothing about why sites move up or down — even experts like Danny Sullivan can’t explain why Metafilter’s traffic fell by 40 percent, nor can they suggest how to correct it.

What you can do about it: You can use alternative search engines like Microsoft’s Bing or DuckDuckGo, as some do, but this will have little to no effect on Google’s dominance or the success or failure of sites like Metafilter. You could write to your congressman or the Federal Trade Commission, but antitrust is a blunt instrument when it comes to correcting such behavior, and usually winds up closing the door after the horses have long since left the barn.

Facebook makes things appear and disappear

We can thank director of product Mike Hudack for throwing a spotlight on the role that Facebook plays in what we see and/or read, with a post that criticized the media for focusing on shallow click-bait — a post that triggered a thousand responses from anguished journalists, complaining that Facebook itself helps determine what gets shared and what gets traffic, and so is partly to blame for the problem. On a related note, Facebook has also been criticized for making newsworthy posts about things like the Syrian war disappear, with little or no explanation about why, nor any avenue for appeal.

Why it matters: Facebook may not be on par with Amazon or Google (at least not yet), in part because the whole idea of a social platform is more nebulous than search or ebooks, and so it’s difficult to accuse it of having a monopoly on anything. But at the same time, it clearly plays a major role in driving users towards certain content, and the algorithm it uses to do that is Google-like, in the sense that we know virtually nothing about how it works, or why it prefers one type of content to another. That makes Facebook almost as bad as newspapers used to be.

What you can do about it: You can stop using Facebook, but that’s not going to stop a billion or so other people from using it, and therefore it’s not going to stop them clicking on what Facebook decides is newsworthy or not newsworthy, and driving traffic to those sites, and thereby helping to determine whether they live or die. And unlike Google or Amazon, there isn’t even much of a case for antitrust, because it’s not clear what market Facebook dominates.

These companies are not alone: Apple (as a commenter has noted) is also notorious for banning apps and services from its platform with little notice. So what can we do to blunt the force of this kind of behavior? For one thing, we can think about the repercussions of using the giant proprietary platforms we rely on, and maybe direct some of our time or attention or financial resources to others, in the hope that competition will be encouraged. As Columbia law professor Tim Wu (the man who coined the term “net neutrality”) argues in his book The Master Switch, the technology world often sees the pendulum swing back and forth between competition and oligopoly. All we can do is try to help it swing a little faster.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Design Pics

  1. You know the saying, power corrupts.
    Leslie

  2. Ray Cromwell Friday, May 23, 2014

    Why isn’t Apple included in this analysis? Apple routinely censors and blocks things from the App Store, often for what is perceived as somewhat vague of capricious reasons. If you’re primarily an iOS developer, you are absolutely locked into the App Store, with 100% dependence on Apple’s decisions, which is not quite the case with the Amazon/Google/Facebook examples.

    1. That’s a good point — they haven’t done anything recently that stood out, but they definitely fall into the same category. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Let’s not forget Apple also is a major player in funding Rockstar, the infamous patent troll company that exists solely to be, well a patent troll . And of course there’s Apple’s active role is supporting MPEG-LA, the conglomeration of corporations established to keep proprietary codecs as a cancerous entity throughout the entire Web while feeding FUD about anything related to open standards or Open Source in general.

      1. Apple supports the MPEG-LA as much as Motorola, Microsoft, Sony, Toshiba, Samsung, LG, Cisco etc

        It’s the only realistic model to license technology otherwise you’d have to deal with 150 different patent holders.

        Same goes for most other technologies where the patents haven’t expired.

    3. This is in the article: “These companies are not alone: Apple (as a commenter has noted) is also notorious for banning apps and services from its platform with little notice.”

      1. Yes, I added that based on Ray’s initial comment.

    4. The difference Apple doesn’t have a monopoly or even majority marketshare on any market.

    5. “Why isn’t Apple included in this analysis?”

      Because Apple doesn’t have an overwhelming market share any place? As folks in the tech press like to keep reminding us, Android is kicking Apple’s ass in pure number-of-seats terms.

      That can’t be said of Amazon, Google, or Facebook. In fact, I’m not sure why Apple would be “included in this analysis”. If you’re unhappy with Apple as a developer, there’s certainly Android and WIndows Phone as alternatives for you.

      If Amazon won’t list your book, which alternative online bookseller do you go to? If Google hides your site from people looking for it, what’s your recourse? If Facebook refuses to put your content in anyone’s feed, what social network do you use as an alternative.

      Sorry, Matthew was too quick, in my opinion, to side with the reflexive Apple-haters here.

    6. Sure, Apple will censor a few apps here and there BUT not because it’s protecting their own apps. While Apple gives away or sell apps, if you’re a competitor – you are still free to sell or give away your apps – look at maps. you are free to load any of hundreds of map apps – or look at itunes, while you do have to use itunes to load your music, you are free to buy or NEVER buy anything from the itunes store – developers or hackers hate the walled garden but for end users, it’s like Yosemite – wide open but with rangers …

    7. Because they haven’t abused it like the others. The only news of banning I’ve heard pertained to porn. Art mistaken for porn and banned but subsequently restored; satire mistaken for slander / libel and banned but subsequently restored.

      They apply the same rules to everyone and they have stated their rules, which doesn’t make things perfectly clear but infinitely clearer than proprietry algorithms and no explanations.

  3. You really can’t avoid people herding. They do it naturally. It’s instinct. They choose to use services like Google and Facebook and Apple precisely because those companies facilitate their herding.

    My herding instinct is apparently broken because I don’t use any of those services. It’s easy to live without them. I use DuckDuckGo for most of my searching. I have a Samsung phone that I hardly ever use any smart phone functions on. I use tumblr for posting photos. Be independent. Break your herding instinct.

    1. I’m not sure using DuckDuckGo, a Samsung phone and Tumblr count as being independent or breaking your herding instinct. :-P

    2. I chose Google for my search because they got even better than Altavista at delivering very fast results and identifying pages that were actually what I was interested in with a minimal fraction of uninteresting pages. And they’ve continued doing that by trying to identify people who try to raise the search rank of their uninteresting pages by tricking Google’s robots, and tweaking their algorithms to down-rank pages and sites that do that.

      If that’s herding, it’s the kind of herding you get when a bunch of cats all hear the same electric can-opener, not the kind where sheep follow the other sheep.

      1. Same reasoning for me, but you have to be blind or just not thinking critically to have failed to notice the drop in search result quality over the years.

        It’s not really Google’s fault, more people publish more stuff and try to game Google’s algorithm, so there’s a lot more obfuscating factors. But the fact remains, Google’s search results are just “OK” now. Having your search page load on time is not even an issue for any of the engines these days. So combined with the lower quality of Google results, there’s really no reason to use them over another engine these days.

        Unless you’re just attached to that feeling you got back in the late 90’s when Google debuted their clean, awesome, search page.

  4. I find this whole thing wildly amusing. Critics of Amazon have been trying to persuade people to use independent bookstores and other sources for their books. They should be thrilled since Amazon is now making that easier. Really, it’s pathetically easy to do without the latest Patterson anyway.

  5. Roger Kondrat Friday, May 23, 2014

    Hi Matt

    Been following you since your G&M days, love your stuff.

    A couple things. I disagree with much of what you are proposing here and I’m not even a crazy right-wing guy.

    Looking at Google as that was my fav of your examples. Have you tried using Bing? It’s literally horrific by comparison. I keep trying and I’d personally love to leave Google search for many of the reasons commonly mentioned, but Bing is no where near a competitor to Google. What can Google really do about this? There isn’t much other than start doing their core business a$$ backwards.

    While I can’t speak to Metafilter, Google is always tweaking and from my perspective as an end user that is very willing to leave at any time, Google is doing their job really well. As well your pointing out a 40% decline at Metafilter is rather sensational. You provide little context and since we don’t know what caused that collapse and 40% isn’t Google punishing them, because if it was we both know from experience it would be 99%-100%. Also can’t state with certainty that they’ve been all above board. Did you see the logs? Did you speak with their SEO team? What if Metafilter got caught with their hands in the cookie jar and now they are using you to embarrass Google hoping to further politicize the issue. That’s hardly unlikely.

    Facebook has always been a joke. They very nearly could get away with murder. I would love to leave them too, but no one anywhere has anything going on like them. Facebook let’s me backup my photos and videos with unlimited storage. This is so awesome! Sure I give up stuff, but I use Facebook and not the other way around. I’ve probably clicked on 1 ad ever and I button up my details and lie to Facebook about other stuff quite often too. I’m not going to deny that.

    If I could even pay just $5/month get to sign up and in to services with another provider and have unlimited storage I’d be there. I find Twitter too limiting by the way. Do you know of someone I could use other than Facebook or Twitter? I just don’t see any options. I was once on Myspace for a whole 30min. Just about had a headache from it.

    Amazon has competition in so many categories and you are right no so much in the US for ebooks or even books for that matter, but your comment that B&N couldn’t do the same is somewhat idiotic. It’s easy B&N just stops putting books on the shelf. I’m sure this has happened many times in the past, but we only hear about it now due to the wonderful Internet. The joke of all of this is really on the record labels, movie studios and publishing houses. I laugh at them all the time! How you can fault Amazon for wanting to lower outrageously priced ebooks, I can’t really understand.

    Amazon’s goal is to get a book in every kids, adults and the wider worlds hands. Literally doing that is both noble and an outright business priority. Do you know why we pay so much for books today? Have you looked into the reasons? We pay this much because the publishers’ goal is to keep prices comparable to paper books. Yeah paper books. The books that require a huge supply chain to produce, that cause deforestation, that cause the leaking of acids into the environment for bleaching of the paper and that cause the need for massive warehouses to store these books. This is ludacris! Much of what I’m saying could be applied to the Movies and Music markets. I’m tired of hearing these whiners complain. If it wasn’t for the muscle of Amazon and Apple on these lazy markets/industries we’d be paying lots more for books, music and movies and that’s assuming we could even get them digitally. I wonder if that’s possible.

    We need genuine competition, not excuses to limit companies that are doing great work. We need to stop giving excuses to the companies that are full of excuses. If Google, Amazon, or Facebook wakes up one day and literally steps on someone’s throat to stay ahead, then I’ll cry foul and be right there with you, but until that day you are peeing into the wind and that’s just not pretty to see.

    Cheers
    Roger

    1. What Roger said. X 10

  6. Valentine North Friday, May 23, 2014

    I’m not going to be “independent” and use gtalk when everyone I know uses yahoo. Same for facebook or whatever online socializing platform you’re using.
    Where I live, people use them, but not that much, ignoring them completely, regardless of age, is common.

    Google is popular because it’s good. Whenever I get irritated with the search results, I try other things, like bing, yahoo or duckduckgo. But they don’t really compete. They show the same results, or a poorer selection. Trust me, when I was desperate enough to search 20 pages for every query with every engine, I learned a lot.
    I should mention though, different results are not always bad.

    For Metafilter … the year is 2014. You want front page placement, then you work at it. Redesign, renew or hire someone to understand SEO for you. Service quality and ads will only get you so far. Also, maybe webblogging is on a downward slope? Google trends says so :p

    Amazon … is really cool, but if I want books, there are a few websites that offer the same, cheaper and with free shipping, as for other things, eBay is better.

    PS Is the article written from the perspective of an European or not? We have a few politicians trying to cut down their power, so things are not quite so grim …

  7. Jerry Vandesic Friday, May 23, 2014

    Arguing that Google is engaging in antitrustworthy behavior is a real stretch. Their algorithms might not be perfect, but they reflect the thoughts of Google employees regarding what is relevant to a particular topic. If you don’t like how Google rates your site, you really don’t (and shouldn’t) have any redress.

    It’s the same situation with those end of year top 10 movie lists — if you don’t like how your movie rates, you don’t go running the government asking to have the rankings changed.

    1. If the company making the top 10 lists 1) owned 90% of the ratings marketshare 2) also made movies and 3) was constantly rating their own in the first places while arbitrarily downgrading others’ it would attract antitrust concerns for sure.

      1. That’s not how it works JohnS. First off…Google doesn’t have a 90% marketshare. 2) Google doesn’t make any of the content it crawls. 3) Google quite often rates other services above their own (Yahoo Finance over Google Finance) in its search rankings.

        See Roger’s post. Hate to break it to ya…but, because you don’t know why these companies lose their rankings…you can’t argue it wasn’t for the right reasons. For every metawhatever (BTW…who has ever heard of this company?) others benefitted. Do you hear them complaining? Are you upset that others won?

        The author behaves as though these companies are punishing businesses against consumers wishes…if this is true…then consumers would flock away in droves. It’s not like Facebook, Amazon or Google is charging users for their loyalty. People choose the services they like. If you want to switch…go right ahead. It’s not these companies fault that their versions of innovation are superior.

  8. If the FCC wants to treat the Internet as an end-to-end platform that consumers pay broadband fees in order to access, what would that mean for Apple and Facebook’s actions as edge providers in a net neutrality world?

  9. Allowing Amazon and the noxious google to grow unmolested while imagining the landscape they gobbled on the way up to be restorable any time we get sick of their rules is akin to saying global warming isn’t a problem so long as we’re still ok. And if the water gets too hot, why we’ll deal with it at that future time. Amazon reminds me of nothing more than the trusts that had to be busted up during the progressive era in the early 20th century. We’re precisely where we were then and the majority is complacently looking for the lowest priced ideas as opposed to a wide range of them. This is what we’ll reap.

  10. Same squawking, different times.

    Back in the day, the network news controlled what you read, saw, or heard about. AT&T controlled the phone lines.

    What’s different now? Only that the whole thing has moved online.

    So what? Most people know what they’re seeing is filtered. The intelligent seek information from multiple sources. Those who prefer to stick with their own, don’t.

    More government is not the answer. Government is in charge of education, and look what a mess that is–and poor education is one reason for most of the problems listed in this post and elsewhere. What’s needed is for the government to work properly and have an understanding of what it is try to regulate.

    Of course, in this country, the “government” is us–all of us, in the form of the people we vote for to represent us. We get what we choose.

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