Users Caught in the Middle

Opinion: The Microsoft-Google spat stifles empowerment.

Remember when computer users felt somewhat empowered? The idea was that your PC would put you on an even footing with those poor dolts still tending the mainframes.

Well, events in the last couple of weeks sure make me feel once again that despite all that talk about user empowerment, the reality is that users are pawns in the technology chess game.

First up is the dust-up between Microsoft and Google over Windows Vistas desktop search priorities. The complaint filed by Google doesnt relate to Internet search, but the day is fast approaching when search will just be search regardless of where the document, Web page or e-mail resides.

In any case, as The New York Times first reported, Google essentially claims that Vistas desktop search capabilities are so intricately tied to the operating system that a Vista user would be hard-pressed to figure out how to select any other desktop search product.

"Microsofts current approach with Vista desktop search violates the consent decree and limits consumer choice," Google spokesperson Ricardo Reyes said in a statement that appeared in The Washington Post. Reyes said that there is no visible way for Vista users to choose an alternative search provider and that it is difficult to turn off Microsofts version. When Vista users attempt to run Googles desktop search feature, Google said, its version runs slowly because the computer tries to run Microsofts search at the same time.

Does this all sound familiar? Didnt Microsoft get into a big monopoly problem in the 1990s for tying in features to its operating system that precluded rivals from easily developing competitive capabilities? Well, of course it did. Microsoft signed a consent decree in 1994 saying it would play fair and, since that time, has found itself restricted less by the legal process than by the fact it missed, for the most part, the rise of the Internet.

The issue for desktop search and Vista is that, once again, users are not really getting a chance to easily switch between desktop search engines to determine which products best suit their needs. Its like that annoying capability of Microsoft to keep switching your browser over to the startup page as your home page, no matter how often you try to change to some other home page.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead here about Vistas security enhancements.

This certainly doesnt absolve Google from responsibility or champion Google as a prime example of user empowerment. Nowhere is this more true than in Googles policies surrounding user search data. Users seem surprised that their search data is not their own and that it can live on long after a search has been conducted. How long? Google tends to use its official blog as sort of a folksy Oracle at Delphi. You can read all the entries, but Id say they all boil down to the following: "We decided to do this (pick your Google topic) for the benefit of users." The latest change on search is a good example.

"After considering the Working Partys concerns, we are announcing a new policy: to anonymize our search server logs after 18 months, rather than the previously-established period of 18 to 24 month," wrote Peter Fleischer, Googles global privacy counsel, in a letter. The Working Party is a group of representatives from the European Unions data privacy organizations. Europeans, in my opinion, are far ahead of the United States in advocating for privacy controls. Among the six reasons Fleischer stated for holding to 18 months—the Europeans were looking for a shorter period—is "to improve our search algorithms for the benefit of users."

Far be it from me to argue with algorithms, but shouldnt Google be addressing users first? How about offering users a slower, less precise search in exchange for a shorter retention period? Is that really so crazy? Why are users always championed as the reason for every technology advance but rarely given the option of skipping the advance in exchange for, say, more privacy or more freedom of product choice for their computers?

eWEEK magazine editor in chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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