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The Ramifications of Falling Out With Google

Google sits on a growing list of multinational companies ‘legally avoiding’ tax in the UK. But while consumers can usually take a moral stand by moving to a rival supplier, in this case, it’s not as simple.

Last Tuesday, the Sun, among other newspapers, accused the energy company Npower of ‘dodging’ £108m in UK corporation tax by ‘funneling cash’ through Malta. This theme, of huge multinationals using their power to shirk their ‘proper’ obligations during a period of austerity, is a recurring one pursued by the British government and the press. Other recent high profile examples highlighting this supposed loophole include Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google.

Yet seemingly, from a legal standpoint at least, such tactics are believed to be sound. Eric Schmidt defended Google’s paltry £6m corporation tax return on UK profits of £2.6bn by insisting the company had ‘fully complied with the law’, adding that Google’s investment and contribution to the UK more than made up for it. He’s got a point. Nevertheless it hardly goes down well with the populace who must pay their taxes to the full. And the row isn’t over yet.

As popular and trendy as the aforementioned brands are, generally, there are a number of popular and trendy alternatives. Don’t agree with Starbucks’ policies? Go to another hipster coffee shop. Feel your mobile network is taking liberties? Sign up with a rival one. And there is no shortage of comparison websites vying for your commission on changing energy providers.

Amazon is a slightly different beast, especially if you own a Kindle and are very much locked into their ebook system. However, similar to any supermarket, you can still buy many of your books, movies, clothes and CDs (still?) elsewhere at competing cost. If you really wanted to.

This is what I try to do: buy from an independent where possible. Sometimes through choice, where I may even pay a couple of quid more than I would on Amazon et al., but also where independent traders are the only ones operating in a niche, such as say vinyl records. Then again, thinking about it, I probably visit the same, small pool of trusted independent shops; places where I’ve been before.

Rory Sutherland, who is generally good value, wrote about the psychological factors behind why online brands such as Amazon dominate for this month’s Wired (UK). The UXers applying PET techniques are fully aware of these. Authority, social proof, status quo bias and so on.

Late last year when I needed to buy a bunch of books for studying —some academic and some out-of-print — Amazon Marketplace was a quick and easy fix. It undoubtably saved me one to two hundred pounds, easy, and a relative amount of hours worth of searching.When money’s tight, just like Marge Simpson, I can’t afford to shop at any store that has a philosophy. I suppose, therefore, everyone has a limit they are either unable or unwilling to go beyond. But, as Sutherland proffers, perhaps affordability was not that influential:

In a desktop internet scenario the force of habit is strengthened by a significant factor… ‘Familiarity breeds contentment’ in online shopping: the cognitive burden of using any unfamiliar website is really quite high. A site you have used 20 times in the last year can be used with a degree of unconscious fluency — whereas a new site requires painful, conscious mental effort, generating uncertainty and doubt…
We would not be recognisably human at all had we not developed the sensible instinct of copying the behaviour of others. Given limited time and energy, to go with the flow of mass behaviour is both necessary for survival and cognitively efficient.

Which brings us to Google. Ask the savvy techie a question: How has Google annoyed you of late? The answer would have little to do with the fiscal issues of a small island. More concerning to them, no doubt, was the web giant’s decision to jettison its RSS aggregator, Google Reader. Such is the product’s dominance in parsing RSS feeds, Reader had established itself as the repository for many other feed readers. And with the closedown date announced, developers are vying to create new platforms to save RSS. Or least make RSS still viable.

On one hand, this could be really good for RSS. Google hasn’t done much with the platform for years and competing businesses or collectives developing open source solutions may drive innovation, introducing new and useful features. On the other hand, the vast majority of people won’t even notice the difference. Because the vast majority of people don’t use RSS; Apple realised this. In truth, it’s a niche method of delivery for the tech savvy.

The tech savvy can, and do, zip through various new services and apps. So if they have a beef with Google, it’s no problem. They’ll use a different web browser. A different search engine. A different email app. A different cloud service. A different operating system. And so on. No sweat. Now I assume much of Medium’s current authorship is tech savvy. But most web users are certainly not.

In Expunging Google Duncan Bayne is journalling the process of weaning himself off all the Google services he regularly used. Certainly there are worthy alternatives, but the many will have trouble making the leap. For instance, Google’s raison d’être, its search engine, enjoys unchallenged dominance: between 85–90% of web search traffic is filtered through Google’s sites. (Google didn’t become a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary for nothing.)

As viable and appealing as Duck Duck Go is, for example, would the bulk of web users be confident that it, like Google, would scour the ‘whole web’? This is, of course, the fallacy that Google’s ubiquity has fostered. Rather, Google shows you the search results it allows you to see; the results may also be tailored for you. Do the many know this? Probably not.The popularity of David Pogue’s TED talk on app shortcuts suggests that what is fundamental knowledge for the tech savvy is revelatory to others.

So in making a stand against Google: you can’t use its search engine, you can’t use its apps and you can’t use its devices. This is a step fraught with anxiety for plenty, one that goes further than shopping for the odd DVD elsewhere. Further even than leaving Facebook for Twitter, or Twitter for App.net, or App.net for G+ (oh…). One that goes against the herd.

Tax, privacy and megalomaniacal concerns aside, Google has made lots of techie things relatively simple for the average web user and remains innovative, investing in other new and potentially ubiquitous offerings — Google Glass, for instance, is something that all of us could be using in a decade or so. (Although, perhaps, opting out now could be the preferred choice of the visionary too.)

The issue here is that many run the risk of sleepwalking into a system of applications and appliances against which they have little recourse, or little inclination, to protest when it suddenly opposes their ethics. Because they are in too deep. Because it takes too much effort to leave. Because they are too wary of the alternatives.

Indeed, how ironic it would be if any of those vilifying Google used at least one Google product in the process: the search engine, the browser, the phone, the tablet, the netbook. I know I did.

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