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Google responds to SA Parliament’s anti-trust violation concerns

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Google has responded to the South African Parliament’s concerns about its anti-competitive business practices, saying the Internet giant prioritises ethics over commercial ambitions.

Google South Africa’s representatives appeared before Parliament’s Committee of Communications and Digital Technologies during a virtual hearing this week, to answer questions on several matters. These included how it is protecting the digital privacy of South African users, its role in the dissemination of information on its platforms and the perceived exploitation of its market dominance in the way it handles user data.

The Parliament hearing comes as the Alphabet-owned Internet search engine faces multiple investigations across the globe, with regulators and legal bodies accusing Google of anti-competitive behaviour, which involves designing its search engine in a way that promotes the company’s own services over those of its competitors.

In a third major anti-trust investigation, 38 US states filed a lawsuit in December 2020, approaching the court to stop Google’s illegal conduct and restore a competitive marketplace.

The lawsuit follows more than a year of investigation and comes as the tech firm faces intense scrutiny of its practices over Internet searches and online advertising.

The probe follows numerous fines Google has been forced to pay, with the latest being this week after a Russian court fined Google six million rubles ($81 600) for failing to delete illegal content on its platform. In 2019, the European Union fined Google a hefty €1.49 billion ($1.7 billion) for breaching anti-trust rules.

During this week’s Parliamentary hearing, Democratic Alliance shadow minister of communications Zakhele Njabulo Mbhele asked Google representatives how the company approaches striking a healthy balance between meeting its commercial imperative and revenue targets, versus accomplishing its mission to provide comprehensive, accurate and authoritative information to billions of users in an ethical manner.

Responding to the question, Charles Murito, Google director for Sub-Saharan Africa, government affairs and public policy, said the company has innovated and promoted its search engine as part of its mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Charles Murito, director of Sub-Saharan Africa, government affairs and public policy at Google.
Charles Murito, director of Sub-Saharan Africa, government affairs and public policy at Google.

“Google takes its moral interest paramount; without users, we do not have a commercial business; and we have to ensure we have user trust .With our search engine optimisation, there is no way to use content in a manipulative way because we work to raise content that is authoritative and we leverage how useful the information is.

“The search engine optimisation really works by driving the audience in terms of the useful information in relation to their search. The more the information is not authoritative, the less it will be prioritised by the search engine. So when people search for particular information and they link onto sites that do not have that information, the user will bounce back,” explained Murito.

He referenced a YouTube video created by Google, which explains how the search optimisation works by showcasing the quality of the search, how much people are bouncing back from a particular Web page and how Google follows through by engagement with users.

Alphabet makes the lion’s share of its revenue from online advertising and the YouTube platform, which contributed significantly to its Q1 2021 earnings of $55.3 billion in revenue.

Google’s advertising platforms deliver targeted advertising campaigns more effectively and efficiently than most search engines, it says.

Profiteering from spreading fake news

The tech giant is facing yet another anti-trust probe in Europe, after the German anti-trust watchdog announced this week that it was investigating whether the company is exploiting its market dominance in an unfair manner.

The announcement comes two months after the release of a reportcompiled by Rand Fishkin, CEO of audience intelligence platform SparkToro, which details how Google “hogs traffic for itself”, to gain more views on its online adverts over those of competitors.

Questions were also raised in Parliament about why the company has been reportedly profiteering from spreading fake news. This is done through allowing content generated from fake news sites to be distributed and only removed after it has gone viral.

“In terms of our removal policy, we ensure that over 80% of content which violates our community guidelines is removed before it has a single view. We make sure our algorithms are really working to drive strong removals, especially around misinformation and hate speech and other hateful content,” stated Murito.

“Political advertising is categorised as sensitive events and we take extra caution of analysing the content that goes online, especially around adverts, and we ensure we are taking a clear and conscious view of what content goes online. It’s important to note that not everything advertised will go online.”

Responding to concerns raised about Google’s locating services and the tracking of users around the clock, Murito admitted this forms part of the company’s geo-location functions.

“Yes, we use their location to be able to deliver information that is more suitable to users as consumers; however, it’s really important to note that information is completely in the user’s control. So if you go to the user’s Google account, you will see all the information we have access to, and users have the authority to completely clear out the information which they don’t want us to have access to.”

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