Google glitch: A small problem raises big questions

A small Google coding glitch this weekend resulted in Google labeling every site on the Internet as malware, leaving most surfers Internet-less for about an hour. Google tracked down and fixed the problem quickly, but the incident underscores just how much sway Google holds over typical Internet use. Is it really wise to let one company hold virtually all the keys to the Internet?

On Saturday morning between 6:30 a.m and 7:25 a.m., every search result in Google carried the label "This site may harm your computer." In the Official Google Blog explaining the incident, Marissa Mayer said the glitch was due to a wayward backslash in some code. A very small problem with large repercussions. As the BBC colorfully reported:

In effect, Google was warning users that the entire internet was sick and shouldn't be touched with an electronic bargepole. Panic spread as the global web community told each other about this apparent breakdown.

That panic, ZDNet's Larry Dignam says, is due to Google's monopoly stature in search. He says Google is now akin to Windows in the PC operating system realm and Cisco in networking. All three hold majority marketshare--and all three are poised to bring enterprises to their knees should they be hit with problems or malware:

Roughly speaking, whenever a technology–Windows for instance–is dominant it becomes a big target to attack. You attack the target and wreak a lot of havoc. Windows is a monoculture. If Windows is wrecked the damage is far and wide just because of market share.

And as this incident shows, Google is now in the same league as Windows. The textbook enterprise defense here is to diversify--standardize on Windows PCs, but also have a sprinkling of Mac and Linux around just in case. But is that realistic when it comes to Web search? Sure, there are some alternatives--Microsoft Live Search, Yahoo, Ask.com--but few everyday users even know where to find them, nevermind use them. If they can't use Google to search for an alternative, what then?

While this incident was short-lived, the next incident might not be. Perhaps it won't get to the point of the famous "Over Logging" episode of South Park, in which civilization crumbles when Internet service disappears. But if Saturday morning is any yardstick, Internet users would be wise to bookmark their favorite Google alternative--and hope that both Yahoo and Microsoft start making stronger runs at search. Any alternative is better than none.

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