It may be shocking to learn this, but not everyone Googles. Despite the fact that it’s become a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary, and that most of use it many times daily (I have known friends that will type a URL into their browser’s Google toolbar, get the results of the search then click through to the exact same URL they typed), Google use isn’t worldwide – just like in countries like Brazil, Facebook has a pitiful market share and sites like Orkut rule the roost.
In Russia, for example, only one in five people Google when they want to find something on the internet; their dominant market shareholder is Yandex, with a staggering 62.8% using it (21.9% Google, 8.4% use Mail.ru and 3% use Rambler, which is like the West’s Altavista: massive in the early days of the internet then it fell of the edge of a cliff when people realised that there were better products around).
It’s an interesting insight into what other countries and cultures find normal, and perhaps it relieves some to know that the entire world, at least, isn’t putting all their searching, their data and their browsing history into the hands of one single entity – regardless of whether their motto is “don’t be evil” or not.
Over the past few months, there have been various finger-pointing stories in the media about how (often Eastern, often undemocratic) regimes are looking to nationalise (read: censor) their internet searches. These stories have a basis in fact in some ways. It’s concerning that the government would want to control a search engine because in many ways search engines are our encyclopaedias, our history books and our dictionaries. If you can’t access anything and everything from them – if there’s a selective choosing of the material they present – then you don’t learn the full picture, always a worrying thing. However it’s worth noting that for all the us vs. them, clearly defined Otherness gusto of the articles, we do largely the same thing. By choosing Google overwhelmingly over other search engines, we are investing our data in a company which arguably could set itself up as a de facto government with the browsing habits and search history it has.
The difference, though, is that they don’t discriminate what data we can see. Our search results aren’t knowingly tampered with to prevent us seeing something that hits a little too close to the bone; something that’s too truthful. And so it’s worrying that three countries historically considered to be ‘rogue states’ and (at least previously) dictatorial have or are in the process of having their internet search capabilities shaken up by a dominant, government-restricted and enforced frontrunner.
China has Yandex, who pander to the Communist government. Google have alternated between toeing the line the Working Party want (that means no anti-estbalishment – or realistic – search results for terms like “Tiananmen Square”). Russia announced in March that they may be instigating a national, state-sponsored search engine, aimed at “facilitating access to safe information[,] filtering…banned content.”
Iran are looking to do the same with ‘Ya Haq’ (‘Oh Lord’), acting as an internal Iranian search engine and intranet which will officially provide Iranians with easy access to governmental websites and information but will probably mean that they only get to see what the government wants them to. By 2012, according to official spokespeople, Iran will be using ‘Ya Haq’ for most searches online, and the population will likely be blinkered to content deemed unsuitable. Both Iran and Russia are also considering the instigation of a nationally-prescribed email system, where every citizen is given their own email address. Again, the PR reason behind this is that information can be disseminated to them more easily and quickly about vital public services, but any email sent to a pro-democracy friend living in London or New York will pass through servers sitting in government buildings.
So think yourself lucky that we are in, though we’re not held to, a virtual monopoly when it comes to searching for information online: it could be different, and it could likely be worse.
Do you worry about Google’s power? Do you think a national email service is useful? Let me know in the comments below.