Alphabetical order

Google’s decision to morph into Alphabet — i.e. a holding company which has one enormously profitable cash-cow (Google) plus a raft of unprofitable and speculative ventures, has prompted a search for models and analogies. In a thoughtful piece, Neil Irwin sees three possible models:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • General Electric
  • AT&T in its monopolistic heyday

Of the three, Irwin sees AT&T as the most likely model, basically because of Bell Labs, which AT&T owned until it was broken up for anti-trust reasons. The Labs were only viable because AT&T had monopoly profits from its phone business, which enabled the company to fund all kinds of fabulous long-term research, only some of which actually benefited AT&T. So long as Google search remains a money-pump, that model will work for Alphabet. If the Search well runs dry, though, one wonders what will happen.

French regulator vs. First Amendment

This morning’s Observer column:

Although Google is an American company, it had no option but to comply with the ECJ ruling because it trades with – and has assets in – all the countries in the European Union. But because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that particular land. And in the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitising Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while RTBF links are removed from, say,, they remain visible on search results from, which is easily accessible from any European country.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this…

Read on

The (political) power of search engines

This is interesting:

We present evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Specifically, we show that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Writing as someone who is working on a piece about the new kinds of power wielded by Internet companies, this seems pretty significant.

The significance of the ECJ ruling

“This time, Washington and its business allies cannot compel Europe to simply submit to U.S. values and interests, as they have in the past to great effect; such as when they pressured European airlines to hand over passenger data for European travellers or European banks to do the same for international money transfers after 9/11. In fact, they now have relatively few ways to influence Europe’s national privacy authorities, and even fewer ways to pressure the European Court of Justice. They may be able to influence forthcoming legislation, but they will not be able to overturn it. Nor can the United States rely on moral force. It is no longer the acknowledged protector of civil liberties on the Internet. To maintain legitimacy, it has to engage with other states that have valid, if different, civil rights concerns.”

From an excellent Foreign Affairs piece by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman on the implications of the European Court of Justice ruling about the “right to be forgotten”.