Prabir Purkayastha

Why Google is facing serious accusations of monopoly practices

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google-Alphabet (Alphabet is Google's parent company) on October 20 for a range of anti-competitive practices using its monopoly power in the search market. It is the only major action in the U.S. against tech monopolies in recent years, the last one being the 1998 action against Microsoft. Eleven state attorneys general have joined the Department of Justice suit, with more expected to follow.

Google's current market share in online searches globally stands at about 92 percent and rises to more than 98 percent in countries like India. The only market in which it has virtually no market share is in China, where it shut shop for its search engine in 2010.

The four major tech companies—Google-Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple—are globally on the radar for their monopoly power and their ability to drive out competition. The recent hearings in the U.S. Congress relating to the Big Four were followed by a staff report of the subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law that recommended appropriate legislative action to Congress to either break up or limit these companies.

Facebook has additionally come under the scanner for being an instrument of hate speech, helping the formation of violent militias, and promoting conspiracy theories, including COVID-19 conspiracies. A Delhi assembly committee—Committee on Peace and Harmony—is investigating Facebook's role in Delhi's communal riots that took place earlier in 2020 (full disclosure: I also deposed before this committee).

Meanwhile, Google faces the following charges in the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Creating a web of exclusionary and interlocking business agreements to shut out competitors
  • Paying mobile phone manufacturers and web browsers to make Google as their preset, default search engine
  • Controlling the online ad market with its selling and buying tools to ensure that web publishers are locked in
  • Using its control over the Android operating system to position its Chrome web browser and search engine as the default for mobile platforms

Much of these sound like legalese and beyond our ability to understand what Google is doing. The simple issue is that Google uses its monopoly over the search engine and its other Google properties to grab more than 30 percent—$103.73 billion in 2019—of the global digital ad revenue pie. Facebook has a little more than 20 percent, but today's story is Google and not Facebook.

Google and Facebook have one similarity. Neither of them generates any content; they show users content generated by others. Their entire business model is capturing our eyeballs so that we, or our attention, can be sold to advertisers. Those who create content may get a small fraction of the ad revenue that Google generates, but the bulk of the digital revenue is appropriated by Google as the major gatekeeper of the digital world.

How does Google get so much of the ad revenue? Does its search engine not show other sites that a person searching on Google would also visit? And would these sites also not get a share of the online advertisements?

Visiting other sites via Google searches is decreasing year by year, as pointed out by Rand Fishkin, a leading expert on search engine optimization. During the House hearing on July 16, 2019, the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law, David Cicilline, said, "In 2004, Google's cofounder Larry Page said the purpose of Google is to have people come to Google, quickly find out what you want and to get you out of Google and get you to the right place as fast as possible." Fishkin shows with figures that this is not the case anymore; if it ever was. Today, the majority of searches on Google lead to no further clicks on the links in the displayed search pages (zero clicks).

In the browser search market, more than 50 percent of searches generate zero clicks on the search result page links. If clicks do occur, a significant share of such outgoing clicks is only for other Google sites such as YouTube, Google Maps, etc. Clicks on search pages leading outside the Google universe are dwindling every year.

The situation is worse with mobile searches than for the desktop market, where Google has a more dominant position. It might seem that Apple mobile phones should be independent of Google and, therefore, non-Google websites might fare better in Apple's ecosystem of iPhones, iPad, etc. That, however, is not the case. Google pays an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion, nearly 20 percent of Apple's annual profits, for Apple to carry Google search and maps as the default setting for Apple phones and Siri.

These figures relate to the search engine outputs and the resulting clicks. What about the proportion of web traffic referrals that sites receive, meaning when sites are visited from other sites, where do they come from? Seventy percent of such web referrals on any site still come from Google properties. If a website gets on Google's bad side, the site could fall into a deep black hole, which only the faithful will visit.

So, if a website owner wants to generate traffic for a site, the owner will have to configure the site in a way that Google can catalog all the content on the website easily. If Google makes changes, the website owner will have to adapt; otherwise, the site will not show up on Google searches, Google Amp pages, and Google News. All sites have to spend money to make Google's task of crawling the web for content easier. If people want their videos to be viewed, the only realistic option is YouTube. And there is no way to fight with Google even if that means a dwindling share of ad revenue for a website owner. Google holds all the cards!

How does Google ensure that most search queries on Google lead to zero clicks? Zero clicks happen because Google increasingly curates the results of the queries, displaying the required information on the search result page itself so that most searchers do not go further. Even Wikipedia is worried, as its clicks from Google are dwindling.

Even when queries lead to other sites in the list of results, they also still lead to Google properties as they promote either the sites or the content of such sites—for example, YouTube videos on the search page are curated in such a way that people do not visit the world outside Google.

The rules of ranking that Google imposes on others do not apply to Google properties and sites, which have consistently higher rankings on Google searches than searches on other search engines like DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc. As Fishkin puts it, the answer to the question of how to be ranked number one on a Google search is an easy one: be owned by Google!

The European Union regulators have penalized Google on occasions, but Google has been happy to pay the fines, as the monopoly it has achieved through its anti-competitive action cannot be reversed. It is like license fees that telecom companies pay to secure the monopoly of the airwaves. In India too, Google has been fined, but the amount of the fine was a paltry $21 million. It does not even count as a rap on the knuckles for Google.

These tech monopolies are also facing action in the European Union and Australia and even in the UK. In the UK, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (now renamed as the Competition and Markets Authority) was replaced with a weakened Competition Commission in 1999, a step which India quickly copied in 2002. Even with a weaker regulatory framework than the earlier anti-monopoly regulations, the UK's Competition and Markets Authority stated in its recent report that these companies "are now protected by such strong incumbency advantages—including network effects, economies of scale and unmatchable access to user data—that potential rivals can no longer compete on equal terms… We need a new, regulatory approach."

India has been charting a very different course. Not only have the government and its regulatory agencies sheltered Reliance Jio in controlling the national telecom monopoly, but they have also 'blessed' huge investments from Google and Facebook of $4.5 billion and $5.7 billion respectively, helping cement all three of their monopolies. While all other technology partners bring in their technology tools and platforms, Jio's key to success is its old-fashioned monopoly over India's telecom network. India is slated to be the world's biggest market after China in the coming decades.

The global anti-monopoly actions show that what we are witnessing is a tectonic shift in the way big tech companies and their owners are being viewed. Not as Ayn Rand's imaginary captains of industry, who through superman-like powers are creating a new world, but simply as venal and predatory monopolies. Even in the fractured politics of the U.S., there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that monopolies are inherently dangerous to consumers and competitors alike. Otherwise, why would a Justice Department under Trump file a case against Google-Alphabet, in which, according to its spokespersons, nothing—presumably even breaking up the monopolies as advocated by Senator Elizabeth Warrenis off the table.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why 2020 is the year of black holes

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The Nobel Prize in physics for 2020 has been shared by Roger Penrose, the mathematical physicist, for his work on the theoretical basis of black holes, and astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who led independent teams, for verifying the existence of such a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Penrose showed that the consequence of Einstein's general theory of relativity is the formation of black holes, not only in collapsing stars but also in certain dense regions of space. Such black holes capture everything: nothing can come out, not even light. Genzel and Ghez and their respective teams independently showed by tracking the trajectory of a star that a superheavy object — around 4 million solar masses — exists at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Ghez is the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, the first one being Marie Curie, who won in 1903.

The Nobel Prize has assumed a halo that it does not deserve. Alfred Nobel was paying blood money for creating dynamite, which magnified the horror of war. But in sciences, it is still seen as the touchstone of greatness, even as its value is going down in peace and literature, which are seen to be far more guided by politics. How else do we explain Kissinger's peace prize in 1973 and Churchill's literature prize in 1953?

There are two Indian connections to black holes. The first is through physics. It was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian physicist, who had shown in 1930 that if a star was larger than 1.4 times the solar mass, it would not stop collapsing. Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C.V. Raman, who was India's first Nobel laureate in physics. Chandrasekhar received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1983. He moved to the United States in 1936 and assumed American citizenship in 1953. Below the mass now known as the Chandrasekhar limit, the star would become a white dwarf. If the mass of the star was higher, he did not speculate on what would happen.

We now know that it would blow up in a supernova, and then collapse with its atoms squeezed into the nucleus-sized spaces forming a neutron star; or not stop collapsing at all, thereby creating a black hole.

The second Indian connection, and an unhappy one, is how the term black hole came about. It is now established that Robert Dicke and John Wheeler, both physics professors from Princeton University, were the first to coin the term black hole for the gravitational collapse of a star creating a singularity. And Dicke's family remembers his use of the phrase black hole whenever he could not find something in the house, asking whether it had disappeared into the Black Hole of Calcutta. Black Hole of Calcutta was, as we know, was a grossly overblown myth about a number of English soldiers and East India Company European employees being shut in a small prison room with two small windows, killing a number of them due to suffocation. The numbers that were claimed then by the East India Company have been disputed by a number of historians, but provided the justification of wholescale killings, plunder and the seizure of lands that finally became the British Empire in India. It overshadowed—in English minds—the innumerable colonial massacres that the British carried out and the devastating famines that accompanied British rule.

Einstein's general theory of relativity, formulated in 1915, led Karl Schwarzschild, an astronomer serving in the German Army in World War I, to publish a solution to Einstein's field equations, which showed that if matter and energy exceeded a certain bound, it would cause space-time to collapse on itself, producing a singularity—or a black hole. The external world would feel its gravitational effect, but no mass or even light could escape from such a black hole.

Though Einstein's general theory predicted the possibility of black holes, even Einstein did not really believe that they could exist. One major objection about the formation of black holes was that it demanded the collapse to be symmetrical, and it was argued that no collapse could be perfectly symmetrical, and therefore the formation of a black hole was a remote possibility. Penrose showed, using a mathematical topology that he developed known as the Penrose transform, that unlike other derivations for black holes, his approach did not require perfect symmetry of the collapsing matter. Applying the general theory of relativity, Penrose showed that the only requirement was enough density of matter in a given space, and this condition was enough for the formation of a black hole.

Such a theoretical derivation is not enough for physicists; physics needs experimental evidence to confirm a theory. Or at least theory alone is not enough for the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy that privilege experimental physics over theory. This was the argument against giving Einstein the Nobel Prize, though the reasons ran far deeper.

Einstein had become world-famous for having turned the familiar world of Newtonian physics upside down. But despite his worldwide fame, he had his enemies both in Germany and in academia because of his opposition to World War I, his radical views including socialism, and the fact that he was Jewish. The prevailing orthodoxy of physics, including the Nobel Committee, dismissed Einstein for all these reasons and argued that Einstein's theories were only theories, and lacked experimental proof.

To end this argument, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919 proposed an experimental verification of the theory of relativity. If a massive object curves space around itself due to its mass, it should be possible to observe this curvature by measuring starlight passing close to the sun during an eclipse. Eddington did this during a solar eclipse of 1919 and was able to show that the results closely agreed with the predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity. The Times of London declared, "Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe," a New York Times headline wrote, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens." Einstein became a rock star in physics, a stature unmatched by any scientist.

But even that did not get him the Nobel Prize in 1920 and 1921. The science historian Robert Friedman wrote in his book The Politics of Excellence that the Nobel Committee could not stomach a "political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics." The 1920 prize went to an eminently forgettable discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy, and in 1921, the Nobel Prize was not awarded. By then, denying Einstein was possible for the committee even if it meant not bestowing the prize on anyone at all. Finally, in 1922, Einstein was awarded the held-over Nobel of 1921, not for the theory of relativity for which he was most famous, but rather for the discovery of the photoelectric effect—the discovery that light also behaves as a particle—that Einstein had made in 1905. It was also the same year that he had published the first of his relativity papers, on the special theory of relativity.

Penrose's work had laid a firm mathematical basis for black holes and, in the heart of such a hole, a space-time singularity. Stephen Hawking developed this concept using the general theory of relativity to show that if we project time into the past, we would find that the entire universe started with such a singularity in time, or a Big Bang. Penrose and Hawking worked together in the 1960s, and their work has been widely hailed for unraveling the origins of the universe. Although Hawking achieved iconic status, as perhaps the most famous physicist after Einstein, he never received the Nobel Prize. Penrose's Nobel Prize for the space-time singularity is perhaps a shamefaced bow to Hawking for the Nobel Prize that he never received.

Theories in physics open up possibilities to understand our universe. But without experimental verification, there is still a nagging doubt in the minds of the Nobel Committee that some new phenomena could contradict the theory. So the search for experimental verification is viewed as the supposed gold standard of physics. And when it comes to astrophysics, it is a daunting task to prove theories with experiments on stars that would have to be observed from light-years away. This is why Chandrasekhar's Nobel Prize took more than 50 years, Penrose's 55, to be awarded. And as Nobel Prizes are not given posthumously, physicists like Hawking are never awarded for their remarkable contributions.

An observation that confirms the existence of a superheavy object that does not emit any energy would provide verification of Penrose's prediction of a black hole. This is what Genzel and Ghez achieved, finding that the Milky Way galaxy, like most galaxies, hosts a massive black hole at its center. Dr. Andrea Ghez is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Genzel the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Ghez's team used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, while "Genzel's group used telescopes in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO)." Both the teams have been in "competition" for some time and have jointly received many honors. In this case, it was over tracking stars close to the galactic center of the Milky Way. Both teams tracked the same star, called S02 by Ghez's team and S2 by Genzel, which had a very short orbiting period around the center of the Milky Way of only about 16 years compared to the sun's orbit of 200 million years. Both teams' results, using different telescopes and data sets over decades, have shown that they are in close agreement that a superheavy object, with a mass of about 4 million suns, lies at the center of our galaxy. In the staid language of the Nobel Committee, "A robust interpretation of these observations is that the compact object at the Galactic center is compatible with being a supermassive black hole."

We have come a long way from Einstein's theory of relativity and Chandrasekhar's stellar collapse. Let me end with Chandrasekhar's Nobel speech, where he quoted the only Nobel laureate in literature from India, Rabindranath Tagore:

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, let me awake."

Often quoted, perhaps overused, but nevertheless appropriate for our dark times.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

We’re a long way away from COVID-19 immunity — even with vaccines

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

As the pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, many countries seem to have given up the fight against COVID-19 and are now waiting for a vaccine to protect against the virus. With cases exceeding 32 million, and more than a million dead, the world economy has taken a bigger hit than at any other time since the end of the Great Depression of 1929-39.

The U.S. and India are now showing the highest numbers of total and new cases of COVID-19. Both have stopped talking about how to stop the pandemic, and are only focusing on reopening—or as India calls it, "unlockdown."

Giving up on containing the COVID-19 pandemic is an admission that public health systems have failed. India, with a poor public health infrastructure, has one of the most privatized health care systems in the world. The U.S. has the most privatized health care system among wealthy countries, with poor outcomes. It is not surprising then that both these countries have failed in facing what is essentially a public health challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the contradictions between the needs of capitalism and the health of the people. Capitalism requires ill-health for making profits: selling patented medicines, costly stays in hospitals, and expensive procedures. The objective of the public health system is to ensure that people stay healthy, robbing capitalists of the opportunity to make profits.

The good news for the world is that 41 vaccines—more accurately candidate vaccines—are currently under different phases of clinical trials, and another 151 are in the pipeline. Two of the vaccines currently in Phase 1/2 trials are being developed by Indian companies—one from Cadila Healthcare Limited and the other from Bharat Biotech—and are set to start their Phase 3 trials soon. Bharat Biotech is also working with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis on a nasal route for delivering a vaccine.

Normally, vaccine development and testing take from five to ten years, so it would be a significant achievement if we succeed in making effective vaccines available by the end of 2020 or early 2021. The progress so far also shows that we have the scientific capacity to develop a large number of vaccines for infectious diseases. The reason we have not done so for diseases other than COVID-19 is that such infectious diseases were thought to be the diseases of poor countries, and do not provide enough profits for global big pharma to invest in vaccines against infectious diseases. It required a public health emergency in the rich countries for vaccine development to take a front seat in medical science again.

As immunity may not be permanent, unless we have herd immunity at the global level, we will continue to see outbreaks in different countries. The virus will not respect national boundaries. And while large parts of the global population have no guarantee of a vaccine, the rich countries with 13 percent of the world's population have reserved more than half the vaccines from the leading vaccine manufacturers.

India may be luckier than most other developing countries as it has a large capacity for manufacturing vaccines. If a vaccine from AstraZeneca-Oxford comes through, Serum Institute of India, Pune, which is partnering with AstraZeneca, has earmarked a significant part of its output for India. Cadila's and Bharat Biotech's vaccines are currently in clinical trials. They also have a significant capacity for vaccine manufacture. Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, an Indian company, has partnered with Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology for distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine. Contrary to some news reports, Russia's Sputnik V was never authorized for the general population and is currently undergoing Phase 3 trials since August in various countries—Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico and possibly India.

After the disaster of U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic, he is desperate to claim success in some way or another before the November elections. He has been pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to give emergency authorization to some of the vaccines that the U.S. has invested in through its $11 billion Operation Warp Speed program. These vaccines have to provide evidence that they are safe and provide sufficient immunity by either preventing the disease or limiting it to a mild form. As some of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines and need at least two months after the final shot to be effective, there is no way that such an exercise can be done by the U.S. presidential election on November 3.

After public criticism of the FDA's earlier emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma therapy, both of which turned out to be of little value, the FDA is cautious about making a third mistake, especially as vaccine skepticism is strong in the United States. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., has termed the anti-vaxxers as a part of the anti-science movement that has gained significant influence in the United States. Anti-science, racism and a deep distrust of the government are driving the rightward shift in U.S. politics. A misstep on vaccines can cause significant damage in protecting people in the long run.

We have also seen similar missteps in India, where the Indian Council of Medical Research's (ICMR) director general issued a stern directive in his letter in July to 12 hospitals participating in trials for Bharat Biotech's vaccine Covaxin, demanding that all trials—Phase 1, 2 and 3—should be completed within six weeks so a success could be announced on August 15, which is India's Independence Day. After an outcry, the ICMR claimed that it was not a directive but a suggestion, with no explanation about why such a harebrained suggestion should have been made in the first place.

Once a vaccine is found to be successful in the Phase 3 trials, it might appear that our problems would be over quickly. Not so fast—we then have the formidable challenge of making it available to at least 4 to 5 billion people for creating herd immunity. This means producing about 8 to 9 billion doses, as a number of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines. We then have the even more challenging task of setting up supply chains to provide vaccines to centers all over each country before people can be vaccinated. The CEO of Serum Institute, the largest generic vaccine manufacturer in the world, has already flagged that India will need about $10.7 billion to procure and deliver the vaccine, a further challenge to the government's finances.

Several manufacturers in India have ramped up vaccine production capacity, so they may be able to produce the vaccines, even though they may not meet the requirements quickly. But an even more daunting task is to create the entire cold chain (temperature-controlled supply chain for all the elements of storage and distribution) for supplying the vaccines to the vaccination centers.

In case of the old-fashioned inactivated viruses, or the more recent use of adenovirus as vector, the cold chain required is between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the cold chain requirement for most commonly used vaccines including those for the flu and polio. For Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of whom have developed mRNA vaccines, however, the temperatures required are between -94 and -112 degrees Fahrenheit, a far more difficult task even for countries like the United States. If the mRNA vaccines are the ones that prove to be the successful ones and the others are not, building up a supply chain for the vaccines that can provide the colder range of storage for most of the world will take far more than a year.

The other challenge is that we have never vaccinated such large numbers in such a short time ever. In India, the pulse polio program uses oral drops and immunizes about 170 million children per year. This is still well below the required 1.5 to 2 billion vaccine shots for India, whether the AstraZeneca or the Gamaleya vaccine, both of which are two-shot vaccines. And for a two-shot vaccine, we have the added difficulty of tracking the people who have received the first shot so that they do not miss their second.

Even if the major economies can solve their problems of procuring the vaccines by jumping the queue with money or captive production capacities, what about the rest of the world? For them, the only major alternative is the WHO-Gavi-CEPI's Covax platform, which requires at least $2 billion by December 2020. It has raised $700 million, and has commitments from 64 major countries for funds, but is still short by $700-800 million.

The U.S., having pulled out of WHO, is not a part of any global effort for vaccines and says that it might help others only after it has helped itself. Russia and China are not a part of the Covax and are working out bilateral programs along with clinical trials for sharing their vaccines.

If vaccine development was simply a scientific exercise, we should have been able to address the questions of when we should consider the clinical trial results satisfactory to start mass vaccination and which section of the people should get the vaccine and when, and at what cost. We would also have been able to discuss how to create the global and national infrastructure for all countries and all people to be safe. Instead, we see the ugly face of "vaccine nationalism," with each country for itself, which will protect neither the nations nor their people. We've seen tech and trade wars; here come the vaccine wars.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

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