July 24, 2011 8:06 pm

Google faces fresh fire over web reviews

Google is facing fresh protests following its decision last week to stop copying some types of information from other websites for use in its own, rival services.

The reversal is the first indication of Google changing its business practices since the US Federal Trade Commission launched a broad anti-trust investigation into the company last month. A similar review was begun in Europe last year.

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The internet search group said on Thursday that it would no longer carry parts of reviews posted on other local web services on its own Google Places, which carries information about local businesses. Rival services such as Yelp, which rely heavily on user-generated reviews and ratings to draw an audience, have complained that Google is using the information from their users to give an unfair advantage to its own service.

Google’s change in practice came little more than a week after Dana Wagner, its legal director, came under attack about the practice from opponents at a conference of US state attorneys-general. A number of states have begun their own investigations into Google’s business practices, echoing the FTC study.

“Based on careful thought about the future direction of Place pages, and feedback we’ve heard over the past few months, review snippets from other web sources have now been removed from Place pages,” Avni Shah, director of product management at Google, wrote in a blog post. “Rating and review counts reflect only those that’ve been written by fellow Google users.”

The reversal brought calls over the weekend for Google to stop using some other types of content from rival sites, and for regulators to take action against the company for its past practices in the local information market.

The search company should go further and stop copying “product reviews and virtually all kinds of other reviews”, Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley lawyer who represents some of the company’s critics, said on Sunday. “A quick look indicates Google might have removed at least some product reviews scraped from competitor sites,” he added, though he said that it would take deeper study in the coming day by companies affected to tell how sweeping the changes in business practices were.

Google’s critics also called on regulators to take action against it over its previous copying of content on Places.

“Google’s decision to temporarily stop stealing content from other sites should be followed by a commitment to not backslide in this practice, enshrined in a court order or agreement with antitrust enforcers,” said a spokesman for FairSearch.org, which represents a number of the company’s opponents.

Without proper sanctions, “no big company would ever obey the laws, they would do whatever they could get away with until they were caught”, said Mr Reback.

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