Photo by Mitchell Luo / Unsplash

Can We Actually Trust Google?

Application Development Jan 22, 2022

For a good few years, it seemed that Google lived up to its old motto.

Don’t be evil.

It also seems that do no wrong in terms of product superiority. Google built its reputation as an ethical company that honestly has outperformed competitors. But is that reputation still deserved as a lot has happened in the few last year?

An important antitrust lawsuit brought by a coalition of States in the United States in 2020 and published in unredacted form last week alleges that Google suppressed competition by manipulating advertising auctions. To me, this comes as no surprise when it comes to seeing competition against Google's products and services.

Google used what are called second price auctions, where the highest bidder would win the auction, but end of paying the publisher an amount equal to the second-highest bid. If one company bids $25 per click, another bids $20 and another $18. The $25 bidder  would win — but they end up paying the $20 per click to the publisher.

in the lawsuit, Google is accused of lying about its second price auction and of running a scam in which it pays the publisher the third-highest bid – but ends up charging the advertiser the second highest bid and diverts the difference to raise the bids so that bids on Google’s platform would be lower than those on competing platforms.

In the end, Google switched to a first-price system in 2019, but the lawsuit alleges that Google continues some version of the scheme under the internal code name Bulbasaur.

Google says the lawsuit is highly inaccurate while lacking legal merit.

As of September 2019, we have been running a first price auction. [But] at the time to which AG Paxton is referring, AdX absolutely was a second price auction.

Another notable part of the lawsuit claims that Google conspired with Facebook to divide the online advertising market – then exclude all and any competitors.

That alleged scheme involved Google giving Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) preferential rates and treatment in exchange for Facebook avoiding the direct competition against Google.

Both Google and Meta say their arrangement actually has dramtically improved competition and was not illegal. The trial will take place no earlier than 2023.

While the allegations were already public – the legal documents filed with the lawsuit allege that Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai personally signed off on the terms of the deal – this also includes Mark Zuckerberg – though Meta is not a defendant in the case.

The agreement was referred internally at Google as “Jedi Blue,” a reference to the color of Facebook’s logo.

This lawsuit is one of many government-filed antitrust lawsuits Google now faces in the United States and even around the world. Most of which focus on allegations of it abused its dominant market position to favor its own business and exclude other competitors.

Yet another class-action lawsuit filed this month alleges that Google illegally pays Apple a share of search profits to stay out of the search business and give Google Search preferential treatment over other search apps. The suit alleges a secret noncompete and profit-sharing arrangement between the two Silicon Valley giants.

These suits allege collusion with even other big technology giants to exclude competitors. But it seems that Google had ethical lapses that didn’t involve collusion. As an example, it pulled a shameless bait-and-switch on millions of Google Photos users last year.

When Google spun the photos feature out of Google+ in 2015, it offered an unprecedented deal: Free unlimited photos storage forever!

The free storage option encouraged millions of users to upload their photos and collections to the service. The Google Photos app encouraged users to delete the local copies to save space on local storage – this means that that for most users Google Photos holds the only copy of the photos people use to capture moments in their lives — their children, deceased loved ones — irreplaceable memories.

But as of June 1 –after users uploaded more photos than they could ever reasonably download – Google changed their minds on that deal, establishing a new quota limit for free storage of  just 15GB. Google even offered a overwhelmingly confusing range of exceptions for owners of different Pixel phones.

We need to remember that the free storage bait came with a catch: You had to let Google compress and degrade your pictures to a high, yet lower quality from the original one uploaded. The majority of users selected this option because they didn’t want to pay for storage. After allowing Google to permanently degrade the photo quality of everyone’s photos, many customers in the end will have to pay anyway.

Note that the fine print in Google’s Terms of Service did not promise to keep the free unlimited storage deal forever. But users were led to believe by the advertising that was the case.

Google's Product Quality

One trend that I have noticed is that it is becoming clear with Google – which is the squandering of early leads to the detriment of customers. As a good example, when the pandemic struck and organizations sent millions of employees to work from home, the group video chat platform Zoom surged to dominance.

Why didn’t Google own this space from the beginning?

If you remember, Google Hangouts launched as a pretty good feature of the now-defunct Google+ social network in 2011. It was spun out as a stand-alone application in 2013. Google had a massive advantage in both product quality and the market share. Sadly, Hangouts changed its focus and purpose and target audience until the application ended up being killed off by Google in 2019 – right before the pandemic struck. This turned Zoom into the indispensable business tool of 2020, 2021, and 2022.

This is, and should be considered, a massive fiasco. But, at the same time, it’s only a small part of Google’s total failure to dominate the larger world of person-to-person communication.

This fact was just recently highlighted by Google’s own criticism of Apple. The official Google Android account on Twitter this month complained.

iMessage should not benefit from bullying. Texting should bring us together, and the solution exists. Let’s fix this as one industry.

The tweet was amplifying a link to a Wall Street Journal piece complaining that Apple’s iMessage interface – which displays non-iMessage users as green, rather than blue, stigmatizes teenagers who own Android phones, and constitutes bullying and the leveraging of peer pressure to compel iPhone sales among teens.

By Let’s fix this as one industry, Google is implicitly calling on Apple to embrace the Rich Communication Services (RCS) protocal – which is honestly way better than SMS – but lags a decade or more behind modern messaging services like iMessage.

The irony is that Google has been in a position to fix the incompatible message platform fiasco for a good few years now. As Ars Technica recently detailed, since Apple launched iMessage in 2011, Google has launched roughly 13 different messaging products — and killed about five of them so far.

Google Hangouts – which also launched as a Google+ feature the same year iMessage arrived (and as a stand-alone product two years later) – was the absolute perfect iMessage competitor. Google could have easily have focused on that one app. Then they could pushed its use on all platforms, and the world would have no need for iMessage and its stigmatizing green speech bubbles. It would have no need for WhatsApp, either.

Google slams Apple for their non-compatibility with other messaging services, but can’t even manage to build a single messaging app that work with its own messaging apps.

Google is a Serial Killer of Products

One of the biggest sources of Google mistrust is the company’s habit of launching new services with the greatest fanfare and hype for everyone to use them, Then they convince its most passionate users to embrace those platforms – then end up shutting them down a few years later.

The sites like KilledByGoogle.com list the services Google has shutdown over time. Even if they had good reasons for terminating these products – their frequency makes users hesitate to trust or invest time in any specific Google product or service.

The next major product that will be shutdown is the older Google Voice – happening next month – and with that closure, Google is terminating some of Voice’s most appealing features to people who use it This includes carrier call forwarding, ring scheduling, the Do Not Disturb timer and other features. A new Voice app will retain some of the functionality of the old Voice app.

The shutdown does not affect Google Workspace Voice accounts.

Allow me to ask, can we trust Google?

In my opinion, the most interesting fact about all these allegations and complaints is that none of them are affecting Google’s Enterprise products or customers.

Advertisers, competitors, and consumers have their given concerns. But there’s no major new reason for enterprises and other large organizations to mistrust Google products in that space. In fact, it looks to me that we’re seeing the collateral damage from a company doing a slow pivot from their general consumers to enterprise clients.

The court system should sort out the legal ethical lapses. Consumer demand will punish Google for the consumer product failures which we have been experiencing. As for enterprise customers, Google is still an ethical and reliable provider that isn’t any less trustworthy than it ever was in the past.

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Traven West

Traven is the lead author for programming and cybersecurity topics. He also dives into application development, web development, and Linux.