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December 18, 2010

Symbiotic relationship between Google, the EU and dinosaurs

Fittingly perhaps, at Googleplex there is a bronzed T-Rex skeleton nicknamed Stan, which is said to remind them to not become a digital dinosaur. But as EU regulators are set to probe Google for manipulating search results, the Eurozone nears extinction.

Mashable wrote of Googleplex: “One of the most arresting is surely the gigantic T-Rex skeleton — nicknamed “Stan” after a “real” dino found nearby — that looms menacingly at Googlers in Mountain View.” Another account of the gigantic T-Rex ventures that Messrs Brin and Page brought him home as homage to the previous occupants, who were said to have helped Steven Spielberg animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

The story of Stan, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, began 65 million years ago in the heart of what is known today as North America. By studying the earth, along with fossil bones and plants, scientists have pieced together a picture of what life was like when this massive carnivore walked the Earth. In Stan’s world there were crocodiles, flying reptiles, large lizards and small mammals, along with a host of other dinosaurs.

When Stan was old enough, he left the family group and fought many battles. Bringing down his prey afforded Stan not only the opportunity to dine, but also the possibility of injury and competition. And by studying “pathologies” in the bones, scientists surmise that the T-Rex scuffled for territory, fought over food, and engaged in other behaviors similar to today’s carnivores.

Last week, European Union regulators were set to probe whether Google “scuffled for territory” by “manipulating its search results to stifle competition, funnel more traffic to its own services and protect its global stranglehold of the online search market.”

By far the largest carnivore in its environment, Stan was an “apex predator”, preying upon hadrosaurs and ceratopsians, although some experts have suggested he was primarily a scavenger. Tyranno means “tyrant”, sauros “lizard” and the species Tyrannosaurus Rex (“rex” meaning “king” in Latin), sheds some evolutionary evidence on the symbiotic  relationship between Stan’s skeleton and “today’s carnivores”.

The European Commission’s formal investigation into Google’s business practices could potentially result in billions of dollars in fines. In the recent case of Microsoft, Europe’s antitrust slapped the company with around $2 billion, and a further $1.4 billion on Intel Corp, in fines.

The issue could boil down to whether “Google has a right to program its search engine the way it wants or whether it is abusing the market power it has accumulated by processing about two out of three search requests made worldwide.”

But let’s take a look at the EU itself, which is now facing three profoundly disturbing scenarios: fiscal union, debt restructuring and Eurozone break-up. Against a backdrop of discord and hesitation among its most influential members, European Union leaders held a summit last week to deal with the growing threat to their common currency, the euro.

On Thursday, Spain was forced to offer significantly higher interest rates at a debt auction. Bond markets fell across Europe. So far the EU has failed to halt the spread of the turmoil as its members are expected to raise $2 trillion of debt. Read Germany. Now, Europe risks triggering the unthinkable: the extinction of the euro.

This week the Economist noted that: “Google has been able to afford such flights of fancy thanks to its amazingly successful online search business. This has produced handsome returns for the firm’s investors, who have seen the company transform itself in the space of a mere 12 years from a tiny start-up into a behemoth with a $180 billion market capitalisation that sprawls across a vast headquarters in Silicon Valley known as the “Googleplex”, an area near to where Stan used to live.

But the alpha male of the unorthodox is now faced with two major challenges: the first is to ponder whether Europe will go under while negotiating with the regulators; the second is how Google will address the issue of sourcing new growth as it is still heavily dependent on its search-related advertising model.

In words that Stan would have been abjectly proud of, Steve Ballmer, the boss of Microsoft, “derided” Google for being “a one-trick pony” but whose apologist “two-ageing ponies”, the archaic Windows operating system and Office, are those I am at this moment grappling with on a friend’s PC. I can feel Tourette’s coming on strongly again, I fear.

Microsoft aside, is it then fair to write Google off for its innovative deficiencies when the likes of social networks such as Facebook, which has seen traffic to its site surpass it earlier this year, and when apps are being offered by Apple in search without the use of a web browser? The Economist notes: “Google recently clashed publicly and caustically with Facebook over the latter’s data practices, warning potential users that the social network had become ‘a data dead end’.” Ouch!

Other barriers are being erected too, such as media companies that are now rethinking their policy of licensing content to Google, and television producers now wary of supplying programming to new internet-enabled television services such as Google TV.

While writing this, I came across an interesting comparative I read years ago while working for an African magazine in London. It is a novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”. This is a story of Okonkwo, a great man in his home of Umuofia, who began building his social status by defeating a great wrestler, propelling him into society’s eye.

Because of his great esteem, Okonkwo was selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken prisoner. For three years the boy lived with Okonkwo’s family and he grew fond of him. Then the elders decided that the boy must be killed.

Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo and when he accidentally killed someone at a ritual funeral ceremony, he and his family were sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods. While Okonkwo was away in exile, white men began coming to Umuofia and they introduced their religion. As the number of converts increased, the foothold of the white people grew beyond their religion and a new government was introduced.

Now, with Greece and Ireland under the virtual stewardship of the EU and the IMF and Portugal threatened with a similar fate, there is a growing recognition that policy-makers are running out of options. Spain is also in jeopardy due to unknown losses in its banking system and even Italy and Belgium are coming under pressure in the bond markets.

As the Economist points out, “This is not happening in a vacuum. As Europe tries to sort out its economic problems, China, India and other countries are on the rise, providing tougher competitive challenges. Because of that, the European social model has to be reformed radically to increase competitiveness.”

Across the Atlantic, Google could also suffer from government threats against companies that are perceived to have violated users’ privacy online. If so, it will be more difficult to carry on “minting money from ads”. And this month, America’s Federal Trade Commission said it favoured a plan to allow consumers to choose whether or not their web-surfing habits are tracked by others.

In a statement last Tuesday, Google reiterated its belief that it hasn’t done anything wrong. But if the Commission finds that Google has abused its position it could levy a fine of up to 10 per cent of its revenue, or $2.4 billion, based on its 2009 earnings figures.

During the spring of 1987, amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison was exploring outcrops near the town of Buffalo, South Dakota, when he came across a large pelvis weathering out of a sandy cliff face 100 feet above the prairie.

During that summer, Stan spent his free time attempting to uncover what was obviously the skeleton of a large dinosaur. One serious injury left it with a broken neck — and probably terrible headaches. But the most interesting wound was a hole at the back of its skull, which is a perfect match for a tooth from the lower jaw of another T-Rex. Although wounded, it  lived to fight another day.

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