Microsoft has been caught out by Google stealing their search results. They noticed recently that Bings search results were more and more similar to Google’s and they came up with a hypothesis for why. They felt that IE9 was “dialling back” to Redmond with Google's search results, allowing them to indirectly copy Google. Microsoft have admitted that they have been using “clickstream data we get from some of our customers” to improve their search results, and accused Google of using “spy-novelesque stunts”.
There’s quite a few issues here so let’s unpick them.
Microsoft have done nothing illegal here. They’ve collected data that their customers have said they can collect and used that to improve their search results. That said, their toolbar by default opts users in to allowing Microsoft to collect this data, so that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Microsoft have invited themselves into your living room and are peering over your shoulder watching your searches, and using that to compete more effectively. Sure, you can ask them to leave, but it’s not a nice situation to discover.
One has to wonder about Microsoft’s claim to be an innovator now. It seems that this innovation is driven at least partially by just copying Google. They are different from scraping sites that republish other’s data only in the matter of degree, not in principle.
Whilst their actions are not illegal, they are by almost any definition unethical. A very good definition of ethical behaviour is that you would not be upset if your actions were on the front page of a newspaper. Microsoft’s now are, and they are being defensive and running for the hills. They’re trying to spin it that this data is just one of thousands of data streams they use to improve their results. Well that’s nice, that makes it okay then.
When a schoolchild sitting for a major test says that they only copied a few of the questions from the guy in front, does that make it acceptable? No, it does not. Firstly they were caught cheating, which is unacceptable behaviour and it leads inevitably to questions about where the other answers came from? Hidden notes? Also, what about other tests? Their entire history and character is now tainted with the epithet “cheat”.
This is where Microsoft find themselves. They have been caught cribbing off the other kids results and they’re trying to make out that it’s somehow honourable.
It absolutely is not. They would not be happy with similar behaviour from their kids.
Somebody needs to get fired for this, because if not, it would be an acceptance by Microsoft that “innovation” is just copying others; something we’ve seen them do way too often.
Companies that hold themselves to a lower ethical standard than cheating schoolchildren need to get smacked.