Google goes on the defensive over FTC probe

Online floggers of ad space and king of search Google confessed on its official bog that the US Federal Trade Commission wants to ferret though its business.

In a post entitled, Supporting choice, ensuring economic opportunity, Google Fellow Amit Singhal, wrote: "Yesterday, we received formal notification from the US Federal Trade Commission that it has begun a review of our business. We respect the FTC’s process and will be working with them (as we have with other agencies) over the coming months to answer questions about Google and our services,"

Singhal said Google thinks it "unclear exactly what the FTC’s concerns are."

If we can help Google out: it might have something to do with the fact that a peddler of advertising space is in virtual control of all the information to be found online, through its dominant control of Internet searches.

Advertising and truth are uncomfortable bedfellows. Google certainly can't be held responsible for any lack of accuracy you may find at the end of one of the links its search engine serves up. But the search itself needs to be conducted in a fully transparent way. It's not that the user needs to trust everything he reads on the Internet. But he does need to trust the validity of the search methodology.

Singhal acknowledges this in his deposition for the defence. "At Google, we’ve always focused on putting the user first." he wrote. He says that, since "the beginning" Google has "been guided by the idea that, if we focus on the user, all else will follow. No matter what you’re looking for - buying a movie ticket, finding the best burger nearby, or watching a royal wedding - we want to get you the information you want as quickly as possible. Sometimes the best result is a link to another website. Other times it’s a news article, sports score, stock quote, a video or a map."

The user can expect the search engine to be as objective as possible and that the links it serves up aren't skewed by who paid most to get their version of reality in front of the most eyeballs.

This is why transparency is so important. Google points out that it shares "more information about how our rankings work than any other search engine." It coughs in the direction of its new 'transparency tools,' its Panda algorithm tweak and the information it offered up about ads that break its rules, in an attempt to defend its core philosophy and commitment to transparency.

But, having a foot in two opposing camps - both disseminating and accepting money to promote information - Google knows the system is patently open to abuse.

The probe is unlikely to stop at the ethical search question, however. Under investigation will be how Google came to dominate search so comprehensively, how it uses it leverage to maintain that position and how far the investigators feel the Googular tentacles should be allowed to spread, before it owns the web lock, stock and barrel.

The investigation - and the arguing - has some way to run yet.