Perhaps the biggest threat to Google Inc.'s increasing dominance of Internet search and advertising is the rising fear, justified or not, that Google's broadening reach is giving it unchecked power.
This scrutiny goes deeper than the skeptical eye that lawmakers and the Justice Department have given to Google's proposed ad partnership with Yahoo Inc. Many objections to that deal are financial, and surround whether Google and Yahoo could unfairly drive up online ad prices.
A bigger long-term concern for Google could be criticisms over something less tangible — privacy. Increasingly, as Google burrows deeper into everyday computing, its product announcements are prompting questions about its ability to gather more potentially sensitive personal information from users.
Why does Google log the details of search queries for so long? What does it do with the information? Does it combine data from the search engine with information it collects through other avenues — such as its recently released Web browser, Chrome?
Data gathered through most of the company's services "disappears into a black hole once it hits the Googleplex," said Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International, referring to Google's headquarters. "It's impossible to track that information."
Google — whose corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil" — generally sees such concerns as misinformed. For instance, the company says it stores the queries made through its popular search engine primarily so it can improve the service.
But whether the criticisms are valid or not, they are likely indicative of the battles Google will face as it, like Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s, moves from world-wowing start-up to the heart of the technology establishment.
The September release of Chrome illuminated the budding conflicts.
To Google, the new browser is a platform on which future Web-based software applications might run most efficiently. It also is a sign that Google understands its growing power, since launching a browser is a direct challenge to Microsoft.
In other circles, Chrome provoked suspicion. One group, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog, argues that the browser crosses a new line.
In a mid-October letter to Google directors, Consumer Watchdog said it had "serious privacy concerns" about the browser and the transfer of users' data through Google's services without giving people what it sees as "appropriate transparency and control."
One of Consumer Watchdog's complaints surrounds Chrome's navigation bar, which can be used to enter a website address or a search query. The group points out that as users type in the navigation bar, Chrome relays their keystrokes to Google even before they click "Enter" to finalize the command.
"The company is literally having this unnoticed conversation with itself about you and your information," Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said.
This "conversation" stems from the "Google Suggest" feature, which is built into the browser and other Google products, including its basic Internet search engine.
"Google Suggest" sends Google searches as you type, in hopes of anticipating your desires. So if you're keying in "Electoral College 2008 election," Google will offer multiple search queries along the way. First you'd be given results related to the term "electoral," then ones on the Electoral College in general, and finally you'd get links pertaining to Tuesday's presidential vote.