If youre the maker of a popular, zero access encrypted webmail product and suddenly discover your product is no longer featuring in Google search resultsfor queries such as secure email and encrypted email, what do you conclude?
That something is amiss, for sure.
But the rather more pertinent question is whether your products disappearanceis accidental or intentional given that Google also offers a popular webmail product, Gmail, albeit one that does not offer zero access because users pay the companywith theirpersonal data, which feeds into Alphabetsuser profiling and ad targeting engines.
So, in other words, Google is not an entirely disinterested bystanderwhen it comes to a rival emailproducts success.
It is also especially pertinent to consider intention here, given thatGoogle is under antitrust investigation in the European Union (and elsewhere), with the ECs competition commissioner probing long-running complaints that the company actively demotes rival services in its own search results impedingtheir ability to compete.
In Europe, Googles search engine has a massively dominant share of the market of circa 90 percent. Which means that vanishing from Google search results in Europe puts an especially large handicap onany business ability to competein the region.
O est ProtonMail?
The encrypted email product in question is ProtonMail, a Swiss startup that began in 2014bycrowdfunding an alternative to U.S. encryptedemail providers that had been folding under pressure to submit user data to intelligence agencies.
In 2015, ProtonMail hadpassed half a million users. Earlier this yearitexited beta, and added iOS and Android apps. It now hasaround twomillion users, according to founder Andy Yen. Back in Marchhe told TechCrunch that ProtonMail was approaching break even through donations and paid accounts.
However, in a blog post published yesterday, the company claims Google nearly killed its product and seriously dented its profitability by disappearing ProtonMail from relevant search results.
In November2015, Yen writes that the company noticed it was no longer appearing in Google search results for related search queries despite roughly doubling itsuser base by that fall whereas all other major search engines were stillreturning ProtonMail prominently in their results:
ProtonMail tracked this situation through Spring 2016, trying to get in touch with Google to query why it had vanished from search results and initially having no luck getting a response. It only eventually got an acknowledgment of the complaint in August after it hadtweeted at Google staff.
After that public exchange, ProtonMailwas apparently informed within a few days that Google had fixed something and after thatitwas able tosee immediately positive results:
A quick test confirms that a search for secure email or encrypted email in Google now returns ProtonMail as the top or second result.
However, ProtonMail says no details have beenforthcoming from Google as to what kind of problem had demoted or disappearedProtonMailsproduct from related searches via the Google search engine.
Weve also asked the company for an explanation but at the time of writing it has not responded to our questions.
Without any additional explanation from Google, we may never know why ProtonMail become unranked. In any case, we do appreciate Google finally taking action to resolve the issue, we just wished it happened sooner, writes Yen.[E]ven though Google is an American company, it controls over 90% of European search traffic.In this case, Google directly caused ProtonMails growth rate worldwide to be reduced by over 25% for over 10 months, he adds.
This meant that ProtonMails income from users was also cut by 25%, putting financial pressure on our operations. We went from being able to cover all our monthly expenses to having to draw from our emergency reserve fund. The lost income and financial damage incurred as a result was several hundred thousand Swiss Francs (1 CHF = 1.01 USD), which will never be reimbursed.
Discussing the matter further with TechCrunch, Yen describes Google as notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to search issues. The only information they disclosed was that they were able to find and fix something based off of our data. Its not really a satisfactory answer considering the problem cost us several hundred thousand Swiss francs and imperiled the business.
In his blog post Yenuses the phrase Search Risk to characterizethe problem arguing that more transparency and oversight of Googles dominant regional position in searchis essential to avoid the risk of other startups being snuffled out by being bumped offGoogles index. ProtonMail is now supportive of the EC antitrust case against Google.
The only reason we survived to tell this story is because the majority of ProtonMails growth comes from word of mouth, and our community is too loud to be ignored. Many other companies wont be so fortunate, he writes.
This episode illustrates that Search Risk is serious, which is why we now agree with the European Commission that given Googles dominant position in search, more transparency and oversight is critical.
Quite frankly, it is insane to not have any regulation or transparency for search.
Does Yen think ProtonMail was intentionally disappeared from search resultsby Google? It is very hard to speculate on the inner workings at Google and whether this was intentional or not, he responds. It could have also been a Google software bug, but we have not heard of any other cases like this so its strange for a bug to only impact us. Intentional or not, it is a pretty clear demonstration of a real world impact that Googles search monopoly can have.
Since going public with the search discoverability problem, Yen says ProtonMail has been invitedby Yelp one of the coalition of Google antitrust complainants to request interested third-party status in the ongoing antitrust case against Google.
We will weigh this option over the next couple days before making a decision. There has always been speculation about Google search results, but our case seems to be the only one out there (that we could find anyways) that is backed by data, he adds.
Its a troubling case, and I think it validates the antitrust investigations the European Commission has opened up against Google. With Googles search monopoly, you have a situation where a single company could arbitrarily destroy any other businesses it wants, without well defined legal constraints.
This is unprecedented in history, as all other industries with this level of control and influence, such as banking, have long been regulated industries. Quite frankly, it is insane to not have any regulation or transparency for search.
Trying to fight Google for compensation for lost revenue based on the search issue would require breaking new ground legally to pursue it, andresources ProtonMail does not have, he adds.
Evidently the answer, in his view, is regulation.
Without visibility of the inner workings of Googles search ranking algorithms it is clearly impossible for outsiders to verify whether the company is fairly ranking rivals or not.
And while there have been a few moves bypoliticians in France and Germany to apply pressure onGoogle to open its black-box algorithms to regulatory audit, it would take a concerted and coordinated Europe-wide effort to create legislation to require disclose anddespite increasingly noisycomplaints from disgruntled rivals with stories of being squeezed out of search results, were not there yet.
You would also expect Google to fight tooth and nailto keep itsproprietary secret sauce under wraps. So there would be a huge lobbying effort mobilized to shut down any such regulatory efforts.
But with worrying examples like the ProtonMail case continuing tocount against it, and reports suggesting the EC is preparing to fine Googleon antitrust grounds,the companyis not doing itself any favors in a region where its business processes remain under heavysuspicion.
The optics look awful. Andpressure for regulators to be able to audit the decisions its search algorithm makes maywell step up in the future.
Assecuritycommentator Graham Cluley puts: Google really should have responded much more quickly when the [ProtonMail] issue was first brought to their attention.Failing to fix the problem earlier will only make more people believe that it was intentional.
Yetintentional or otherwise,damage was clearly done and that may be the most powerfulargument for the need toauditincreasingly powerfulalgorithms.