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Next In Google’s Quest For Consumer Dominance: Banking (#GotBitcoin?)

Search giant plans to partner with banks to offer checking accounts. Next In Google’s Quest For Consumer Dominance: Banking (#GotBitcoin?)

Google will soon offer checking accounts to consumers, becoming the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to push into finance.

The project, code-named Cache, is expected to launch next year with accounts run by Citigroup Inc. C -1.55% and a credit union at Stanford University, a tiny lender in Google’s backyard.

Big tech companies see financial services as a way to get closer to users and glean valuable data. Apple Inc. introduced a credit card this summer. Inc. has talked to banks about offering checking accounts. Facebook Inc. is working on a digital currency it hopes will upend global payments.

Their ambitions could challenge incumbent financial-services firms, which fear losing their primacy and customers. They are also likely to stoke a reaction in Washington, where regulators are already investigating whether large technology companies have too much clout.

The tie-ups between banking and technology have sometimes been fraught. Apple irked its credit-card partner, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., by running ads that said the card was “designed by Apple, not a bank.” Major financial companies dropped out of Facebook’s crypto project after a regulatory backlash.

Google’s approach seems designed to make allies, rather than enemies, in both camps. The financial institutions’ brands, not Google’s, will be front-and-center on the accounts, an executive told The Wall Street Journal. And Google will leave the financial plumbing and compliance to the banks—activities it couldn’t do without a license anyway.

“Our approach is going to be to partner deeply with banks and the financial system,” Google executive Caesar Sengupta said in an interview. “It may be the slightly longer path, but it’s more sustainable.”

Google is setting its sights fairly low. Checking accounts are a commoditized product, and people don’t switch very often. But they contain a treasure trove of information, including how much money people make, where they shop and what bills they pay.

The company will have to convince a public that is increasingly wary of how tech companies are using personal data that it can be trusted with people’s finances. Federal regulators are examining whether the user information Google gets from its search engine, home speakers, email service and other apps gives the company an unfair advantage over competitors, the Journal has reported.

Mr. Sengupta said Google wanted to bring value to consumers, banks and merchants, with services that could include loyalty programs, but it wouldn’t sell checking-account users’ financial data. The company said it doesn’t use Google Pay data for advertising purposes and doesn’t share that data with advertisers.

Fifty-eight percent of people recently surveyed by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said they would trust financial products from Google. That was better than Apple and Facebook but worse than Amazon.

“If we can help more people do more stuff in a digital way online, it’s good for the internet and good for us,” Mr. Sengupta said.

Mr. Sengupta said Google hadn’t decided whether the checking accounts would charge fees. Banks sometimes charge fees to some customers who carry smaller balances or don’t use their debit cards often.

Big banks already are facing competition from technology upstarts, especially among millennial, mobile-first customers. Money-transfer services Venmo and Cash App are rolling out debit cards. Chime Financial Inc. and Revolut Ltd. have scored billion-dollar valuations on the backs of their mobile-banking apps.

Google flirted with financial services in the past. In 2011, it launched Google Wallet, where users could digitally store their existing credit and debit cards to make purchases. In 2015, it explored ways to use email to pay bills.

It launched, then quickly shut down, a site where users could comparison-shop for insurance and credit cards. More recently it has focused on India, where mobile payments are growing quickly.

Consumers would access their checking accounts through Google’s digital wallet, Google Pay. Alphabet Inc., GOOG -0.06% Google’s parent company, has been trying to boost usage of the app, which launched in 2015 and competes with similar payment apps from Apple, Samsung Electronics Co. and Facebook, which this week introduced its own payments service across its apps.

Google Pay is on track to have 100 million users world-wide in 2020, up from 39 million in 2018, according to estimates from Juniper Research. Apple Pay had about 140 million users last year, according to the research firm.

Banks are trying to figure out when to work with tech companies and when to compete against them. Both Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, Google’s other partner on the Cache project, could bring in deposits and establish relationships with younger, tech-savvy savers who might one day need a mortgage or credit card.

Citigroup is one of the largest U.S. banks but has far fewer branches than rivals like JPMorgan Chase & Co. Instead, it is leaning on digital offerings to bring in deposits, a cheap source of funding that is crucial to how banks make money.

Anand Selva, who heads Citigroup’s U.S. consumer bank, said digital partnerships like the one with Google would let the bank grow beyond its bricks-and-mortar network. “We have to be where our customers are,” he said.

Mr. Sengupta, who moved from Delhi, India, to attend graduate school at Stanford in the late 1990s, said he opened his first bank account at the Stanford credit union and that many Google employees still bank there.

Mr. Sengupta said Google was open to adding more banks in the future.

Updated: 11-15-2019

How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results

The internet giant uses blacklists, algorithm tweaks and an army of contractors to shape what you see.

Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google, prompting its algorithms to spit out results for hotel rates or breast-cancer treatments or the latest news about President Trump.

They are arguably the most powerful lines of computer code in the global economy, controlling how much of the world accesses information found on the internet, and the starting point for billions of dollars of commerce.

Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.

The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.

But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation, the Journal found.

Google’s evolving approach marks a shift from its founding philosophy of “organizing the world’s information,” to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear.

More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:

• Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

• Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.

• Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.

• In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.

• Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.

• To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.

THE JOURNAL’S FINDINGS undercut one of Google’s core defenses against global regulators worried about how it wields its immense power—that the company doesn’t exert editorial control over what it shows users. Regulators’ areas of concern include anticompetitive practices, political bias and online misinformation.

Far from being autonomous computer programs oblivious to outside pressure, Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit. Google is now the most highly trafficked website in the world, surpassing 90% of the market share for all search engines. The market capitalization of its parent, Alphabet Inc., is more than $900 billion.

Google made more than 3,200 changes to its algorithms in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010, according to Google and a person familiar with the matter. Google said 15% of queries today are for words, or combinations of words, that the company has never seen before, putting more demands on engineers to make sure the algorithms deliver useful results.

A Google spokeswoman disputed the Journal’s conclusions, saying, “We do today what we have done all along, provide relevant results from the most reliable sources available.”

Lara Levin, the spokeswoman, said the company is transparent in its guidelines for evaluators and in what it designs the algorithms to do.

AS PART OF ITS EXAMINATION, the Journal tested Google’s search results over several weeks this summer and compared them with results from two competing search engines, Microsoft Corp. ’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies, including Verizon Communications Inc. ’s Yahoo search engine.

The testing showed wide discrepancies in how Google handled auto-complete queries and some of what Google calls organic search results—the list of websites that Google says are algorithmically sorted by relevance in response to a user’s query. (Read about the methodology for the Journal’s analysis.)

Ms. Levin, the Google spokeswoman, declined to comment on specific results of the Journal’s testing. In general, she said, “Our systems aim to provide relevant results from authoritative sources,” adding that organic search results alone “are not representative of the information made accessible via search.”

The Journal tested the auto-complete feature, which Google says draws from its vast database of search information to predict what a user intends to type, as well as data such as a user’s location and search history. The testing showed the extent to which Google doesn’t offer certain suggestions compared with other search engines.

Typing “Joe Biden is” or “Donald Trump is” in auto-complete, Google offered predicted language that was more innocuous than the other search engines. Similar differences were shown for other presidential candidates tested by the Journal.

The Journal also tested several search terms in auto-complete such as “immigrants are” and “abortion is.” Google’s predicted searches were less inflammatory than those of the other engines.

Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s chief executive, said that for certain words or phrases entered into the search box, such as ones that might be offensive, DuckDuckGo has decided to block all of its auto-complete suggestions, which it licenses from Yahoo. He said that type of block wasn’t triggered in the Journal’s searches for Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

A spokeswoman for Yahoo operator Verizon Media said, “We are committed to delivering a safe and trustworthy search experience to our users and partners, and we work diligently to ensure that search suggestions within Yahoo Search reflect that commitment.”

Said a Microsoft spokeswoman: “We work to ensure that our search results are as relevant, balanced, and trustworthy as possible, and in general, our rule is to minimize interference with the normal algorithmic operation.”

In other areas of the Journal analysis, Google’s results in organic search and news for a number of hot-button terms and politicians’ names showed prominent representation of both conservative and liberal news outlets.

ALGORITHMS ARE effectively recipes in code form, providing step-by-step instructions for how computers should solve certain problems. They drive not just the internet, but the apps that populate phones and tablets.

Algorithms determine which friends show up in a Facebook user’s news feed, which Twitter posts are most likely to go viral and how much an Uber ride should cost during rush hour as opposed to the middle of the night. They are used by banks to screen loan applications, businesses to look for the best job applicants and insurers to determine a person’s expected lifespan.

In the beginning, their power was rarely questioned. At Google in particular, its innovative algorithms ranked web content in a way that was groundbreaking, and hugely lucrative. The company aimed to make the web useful while relying on the assumption that code alone could do the heavy lifting of figuring out how to rank information.

But bad actors are increasingly trying to manipulate search results, businesses are trying to game the system and misinformation is rampant across tech platforms. Google found itself facing a version of the pressures on Facebook, which long said it was just connecting people but has been forced to more aggressively police content on its platform.

A 2016 internal investigation at Google showed between a 10th of a percent and a quarter of a percent of search queries were returning misinformation of some kind, according to one Google executive who works on search. It was a small number percentage-wise, but given the huge volume of Google searches it would amount to nearly two billion searches a year.

By comparison, Facebook faced congressional scrutiny for Russian misinformation that was viewed by 126 million users.

Google’s Ms. Levin said the number includes not just misinformation but also a “wide range of other content defined as lowest quality.” She disputed the Journal’s estimate of the number of searches that were affected. The company doesn’t disclose metrics on Google searches.

Google assembled a small SWAT team to work on the problem that became known internally as “Project Owl.” Borrowing from the strategy used earlier to fight spam, engineers worked to emphasize factors on a page that are proxies for “authoritativeness,” effectively pushing down pages that don’t display those attributes.

Other tech platforms, including Facebook, have taken a more aggressive approach, manually removing problem content and devising rules around what it defines as misinformation. Google, for its part, said its role “indexing” content versus “hosting” content, as Facebook does, means it shouldn’t take a more active role.

One Google search executive described the problem of defining misinformation as incredibly hard, and said the company didn’t want to go down the path of figuring it out.

Around the time Google started addressing issues such as misinformation, it started fielding even more complaints, to the point where human interference became more routine, according to people familiar with the matter, putting it in the position of arbitrating some of society’s most complicated issues. Some changes to search results might be considered reasonable—boosting trusted websites like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example—but Google has made little disclosure about when changes are made, or why.

Businesses, lawmakers and advertisers are worried about fairness and competition within the markets where Google is a leading player, and as a result its operations are coming under heavy scrutiny.

The U.S. Justice Department earlier this year opened an antitrust probe, in which Google’s search policies and practices are expected to be areas of focus. Google executives have twice been called to testify before Congress in the past year over concerns about political bias. In the European Union, Google has been fined more than $9 billion in the past three years for anticompetitive practices, including allegedly using its search engine to favor its own products.

In response, Google has said it faces tough competition in a dynamic tech sector, and that its behavior is aimed at helping create choice for consumers, not hurting rivals. The company is currently appealing the decisions against it in the EU, and it has denied claims of political bias.

GOOGLE RARELY RELEASES detailed information on algorithm changes, and its moves have bedeviled companies and interest groups, who feel they are operating at the tech giant’s whim.

In one change hotly contested within Google, engineers opted to tilt results to favor prominent businesses over smaller ones, based on the argument that customers were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets. One effect of the change was a boost to Amazon’s products, even if the items had been discontinued, according to people familiar with the matter.

The issue came up repeatedly over the years at meetings in which Google search executives discuss algorithm changes. Each time, they chose not to reverse the change, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Google engineers said it is widely acknowledged within the company that search is a zero-sum game: A change that helps lift one result inevitably pushes down another, often with considerable impact on the businesses involved.

Ms. Levin said there is no guidance in Google’s rater guidelines that suggest big sites are inherently more authoritative than small sites. “It’s inaccurate to suggest we did not address issues like discontinued products appearing high up in results,” she added.

Many of the changes within Google have coincided with its gradual evolution from a company with an engineering-focused, almost academic culture, into an advertising behemoth and one of the most profitable companies in the world. Advertising revenue—which includes ads on search as well as on other products such as maps and YouTube—was $116.3 billion last year.

Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter. In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.

“If they have an [algorithm] update, our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it,” said Jeremy Cornfeldt, the chief executive of the Americas of Dentsu Inc.’s iProspect, which Mr. Cornfeldt said is one of Google’s largest advertising agency clients. He said the agency doesn’t get information Google wouldn’t share publicly. Among others it can disclose, iProspect represents Levi Strauss & Co., Alcon Inc. and Wolverine World Wide Inc.

One former executive at a Fortune 500 company that received such advice said Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites.

Google updates its index of some sites such as Facebook and Amazon more frequently, a move that helps them appear more often in search results, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“There’s this idea that the search algorithm is all neutral and goes out and combs the web and comes back and shows what it found, and that’s total BS,” the former executive said. “Google deals with special cases all the time.”

Ms. Levin, the Google spokeswoman, said the search team’s practice is to not provide specialized guidance to website owners. She also said that faster indexing of a site isn’t a guarantee that it will rank higher. “We prioritize issues based on impact, not any commercial relationships,” she said.

Online marketplace eBay had long relied on Google for as much as a third of its internet traffic. In 2014, traffic suddenly plummeted—contributing to a $200 million hit in its revenue guidance for that year.

Google told the company it had made a decision to lower the ranking of a large number of eBay pages that were a big source of traffic.

EBay executives debated pulling their quarterly advertising spending of around $30 million from Google to protest, but ultimately decided to step up lobbying pressure on Google, with employees and executives calling and meeting with search engineers, according to people familiar with the matter. A similar episode had hit traffic several years earlier, and eBay had marshaled its lobbying might to persuade Google to give it advice about how to fix the problem, even relying on a former Google staffer who was then employed at eBay to work his contacts, according to one of those people.

This time, Google ultimately agreed to improve the ranking of a number of pages it had demoted while eBay completed a broader revision of its website to make the pages more “useful and relevant,” the people said. The revision was arduous and costly to complete, one of the people said, adding that eBay was later hit by other downrankings that Google didn’t help with.

“We’ve experienced significant and consistent drops in Google SEO for many years, which has been disproportionally detrimental to those small businesses that we support,” an eBay spokesman said. SEO, or search-engine optimization, is the practice of trying to generate more search-engine traffic for a website.

Google’s Ms. Levin declined to comment on eBay.

Companies without eBay’s clout had different experiences.

Dan Baxter can remember the exact moment his website, DealCatcher, was caught in a Google algorithm change. It was 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18. Mr. Baxter, who founded the Wilmington, Del., coupon website 20 years ago, got a call from one of his 12 employees the next morning.

“Have you looked at our traffic?” the worker asked, frantically, Mr. Baxter recalled. It was suddenly down 93% for no apparent reason. That Saturday, DealCatcher saw about 31,000 visitors from Google. Now it was posting about 2,400. It had disappeared almost entirely on Google search.

Mr. Baxter said he didn’t know whom to contact at Google, so he hired a consultant to help him identify what might have happened. The expert reached out directly to a contact at Google but never heard back. Mr. Baxter tried posting to a YouTube forum hosted by a Google “webmaster” to ask if it might have been a technical problem, but the webmaster seemed to shoot down that idea.

One month to the day after his traffic disappeared, it inexplicably came back, and he still doesn’t know why.

“You’re kind of just left in the dark, and that’s the scary part of the whole thing,” said Mr. Baxter.

Google’s Ms. Levin declined to comment on DealCatcher.

(The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp, which has complained publicly about Google’s moves to play down news sites that charge for subscriptions. Google ended the policy that year after intensive lobbying by News Corp and other paywalled publishers. More recently, News Corp has called for an “algorithm review board” to oversee Google, Facebook and other tech giants. News Corp has a commercial agreement to supply news through Facebook, and Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services. Google’s Ms. Levin and News Corp declined to comment.)

GOOGLE IN RECENT months has made additional efforts to clarify how its services operate by updating general information on its site. At the end of October it posted a new video titled “How Google Search Works.”

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor and faculty director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said Google has poorly defined how often or when it intervenes on search results. The company’s argument that it can’t reveal those details because it is fighting spam “seems nuts,” said Mr. Zittrain.

“That argument may have made sense 10 or 15 years ago but not anymore,” he said. “That’s called ‘security through obscurity,’ ” a reference to the now-unfashionable engineering idea that systems can be made more secure by restricting information about how they operate.

Google’s Ms. Levin said “extreme transparency has historically proven to empower bad actors in a way that hurts our users and website owners who play by the rules.”

“Building a service like this means making tens of thousands of really, really complicated human decisions, and that’s not what people think,” said John Bowers, a research associate at the Berkman Klein Center.

On one extreme, those decisions at Google are made by the world’s most accomplished and highest-paid engineers, whose job is to turn the dials within millions of lines of complex code. On the other is an army of more than 10,000 contract workers, who work from home and get paid by the hour to evaluate search results.

The rankings supplied by the contractors, who work from a Google manual that runs to hundreds of pages, can indirectly move a site higher or lower in results, according to people familiar with the matter. And their collective responses are measured by Google executives and used to affect the search algorithms.

Mixed Results

Google’s results page has become a complex mix of search results, advertisements and featured content, not always distinguishable by the user. While these features are all driven by algorithms, Google has different policies and attitudes toward changing the results shown in each of the additional features. Featured snippets and knowledge panels are two common features.

One of those evaluators was Zack Langley, now a 27-year-old logistics manager at a tour company in New Orleans. Mr. Langley got a one-year contract in the spring of 2016 evaluating Google’s search results through Lionbridge Technologies Inc., one of several companies Google and other tech platforms use for contract work.

During his time as a contractor, Mr. Langley said he never had any contact with anyone at Google, nor was he told what his results would be used for. Like all of Google’s evaluators, he signed a nondisclosure agreement. He made $13.50 an hour and worked up to 20 hours a week from home.

Sometimes working in his pajamas, Mr. Langley was given hundreds of real search results and told to use his judgment to rate them according to quality, reputation and usefulness, among other factors.

At one point, Mr. Langley said he was unhappy with the search results for “best way to kill myself,” which were turning up links that were like “how-to” manuals. He said he down-ranked all the other results for suicide until the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was the No. 1 result.

Soon after, Mr. Langley said, Google sent a note through Lionbridge saying the hotline should be ranked as the top result across all searches related to suicide, so that the collective rankings of the evaluators would adjust the algorithms to deliver that result. He said he never learned if his actions had anything to do with the change.

Mr. Langley said it seemed like Google wanted him to change content on search so Google would have what he called plausible deniability about making those decisions. He said contractors would get notes from Lionbridge that he believed came from Google telling them the “correct” results on other searches.

He said that in late 2016, as the election approached, Google officials got more involved in dictating the best results, although not necessarily on issues related to the campaign. “They used to have a hands-off approach, and then it seemed to change,” he said.

Ms. Levin, the Google spokeswoman, said the company “long ago evolved our approach to collecting feedback on these types of queries, which help us develop algorithmic solutions and features in this area.” She added that, “we provide updates to our rater guidelines to ensure all raters are following the same general framework.”

Lionbridge didn’t reply to requests for comment.

AT GOOGLE, EMPLOYEES routinely use the company’s internal message boards as well as a form called “go/bad” to push for changes in specific search results. (Go/bad is a reporting system meant to allow Google staff to point out problematic search results.)

One of the first hot-button issues surfaced in 2015, according to people familiar with the matter, when some employees complained that a search for “how do vaccines cause autism” delivered misinformation through sites that oppose vaccinations.

At least one employee defended the result, writing that Google should “let the algorithms decide” what shows up, according to one person familiar with the matter. Instead, the people said, Google made a change so that the first result is a site called—which states on its home page in large black letters, “They f—ing don’t.” (The phrase has become a meme within Google.)

Google’s Ms. Levin declined to comment.

In the fall of 2018, the conservative news site Breitbart News Network posted a leaked video of Google executives, including Mr. Brin and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, upset and addressing staffers following President Trump’s election two years earlier. A group of Google employees noticed the video was appearing on the 12th page of search results when Googling “leaked Google video Trump,” which made it seem like Google was burying it. They complained on one of the company’s internal message boards, according to people familiar with the matter. Shortly after, the leaked video began appearing higher in search results.

“When we receive reports of our product not behaving as people might expect, we investigate to see if there’s any useful insight to inform future improvements,” said Ms. Levin.

FROM GOOGLE’S FOUNDING, Messrs. Page and Brin knew that ranking webpages was a matter of opinion. “The importance of a Web page is an inherently subjective matter, which depends on the [readers’] interests, knowledge and attitudes,” they wrote in their 1998 paper introducing the PageRank algorithm, the founding system that launched the search engine.

PageRank, they wrote, would measure the level of human interest and attention, but it would do so “objectively and mechanically.” They contended that the system would mathematically measure the relevance of a site by the number of times other relevant sites linked to it on the web.

Today, PageRank has been updated and subsumed into more than 200 different algorithms, attuned to hundreds of signals, now used by Google. (The company replaced PageRank in 2005 with a newer version that could better keep up with the vast traffic that the site was attracting. Internally, it was called “PageRankNG,” ostensibly named for “next generation,” according to people familiar with the matter. In public, the company still points to PageRank—and on its website links to the original algorithm published by Messrs. Page and Brin—in explaining how search works. “The original insight and notion of using link patterns is something that we still use in our systems,” said Ms. Levin.)

By the early 2000s, spammers were overwhelming Google’s algorithms with tactics that made their sites appear more popular than they were, skewing search results. Messrs. Page and Brin disagreed over how to tackle the problem.

Mr. Brin argued against human intervention, contending that Google should deliver the most accurate results as delivered by the algorithms, and that the algorithms should only be tweaked in the most extreme cases. Mr. Page countered that the user experience was getting damaged when users encountered spam rather than useful results, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google already had been taking what the company calls “manual actions” against specific websites that were abusing the algorithm. In that process, Google engineers demote a website’s ranking by changing its specific “weighting.” For example, if a website is artificially boosted by paying other websites to link to it, a behavior that Google frowns upon, Google engineers could turn down the dial on that specific weighting. The company could also blacklist a website, or remove it altogether.

Mr. Brin still opposed making large-scale efforts to fight spam, because it involved more human intervention. Mr. Brin, whose parents were Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union, even personally decided to allow anti-Semitic sites that were in the results for the query “Jew,” according to people familiar with the decision. Google posted a disclaimer with results for that query saying, “Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google.”

Finally, in 2004, in the bathroom one day at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Mr. Page approached Ben Gomes, one of Google’s early search executives, to express support for his efforts fighting spam. “Just do what you need to do,” said Mr. Page, according to a person familiar with the conversation. “Sergey is going to ruin this f—ing company.”

Ms. Levin, the Google spokeswoman, said Messrs. Page, Brin and Gomes declined to comment.

After that, the company revised its algorithms to fight spam and loosened rules for manual interventions, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google has guidelines for changing its ranking algorithms, a grueling process called the “launch committee.” Google executives have pointed to this process in a general way in congressional testimony when asked about algorithm changes.

The process is like defending a thesis, and the meetings can be contentious, according to people familiar with them.

In part because the process is laborious, some engineers aim to avoid it if they can, one of these people said, and small changes can sometimes get pushed through without the committee’s approval. Mr. Gomes is on the committee that decides whether to approve the changes, and other senior officials sometimes attend as well.

Google’s Ms. Levin said not every algorithm change is discussed in a meeting, but “there are other processes for reviewing more straightforward launches at different levels of the organization,” such as an email review. Those reviews still involve members of the launch committee, she said.

Today, Google discloses only a few of the factors being measured by its algorithms. Known ones include “freshness,” which gives preference to recently created content for searches relating to things such as breaking news or a sports event. Another is where a user is located—if a user searches for “zoo,” Google engineers want the algorithms to provide the best zoo in the user’s area. Language signals—how meanings change when words are used together, such as April and fools—are among the most important, as they help determine what a user is actually asking for.

Other important signals have included the length of time users would stay on pages they clicked on before clicking back to Google, according to a former Google employee. Long stays would boost a page’s ranking. Quick bounce backs, indicating a site wasn’t relevant, would severely hurt a ranking, the former employee said.

Over the years, Google’s database recording this user activity has become a competitive advantage, helping cement its position in the search market. Other search engines don’t have the vast quantity of data that is available to Google, search’s market-leader.

That makes the impact of its operating decisions immense. When Pinterest Inc. filed to go public earlier this year, it said that “search engines, such as Google, may modify their algorithms and policies or enforce those policies in ways that are detrimental to us.” It added: “Our ability to appeal these actions is limited.” A spokeswoman for Pinterest declined to comment.

Search-engine optimization consultants have proliferated to try to decipher Google’s signals on behalf of large and small businesses. But even those experts said the algorithms remain borderline indecipherable. “It’s black magic,” said Glenn Gabe, an SEO expert who has spent years analyzing Google’s algorithms and tried to help DealCatcher find a solution to its drop in traffic earlier this year.

ALONG WITH ADVERTISEMENTS, Google’s own features now take up large amounts of space on the first page of results—with few obvious distinctions for users. These include news headlines and videos across the top, information panels along the side and “People also ask” boxes highlighting related questions.

Google engineers view the features as separate products from Google search, and there is less resistance to manually changing their content in response to outside requests, according to people familiar with the matter.

These features have become more prominent as Google attempts to keep users on its results page, where ads are placed, instead of losing the users as they click through to other sites. In September, about 55% of Google searches on mobile were “no-click” searches, according to research firm Jumpshot, meaning users never left the results page.

Two typical features on the results page—knowledge panels, which are collections of relevant information about people, events or other things; and featured snippets, which are highlighted results that Google thinks will contain content a user is looking for—are areas where Google engineers make changes to fix results, the Journal found.

Curated Features

Google has looser policies about making adjustments to these features than organic search results. The features include Google News and People also ask.

In April, the conservative Heritage Foundation called Google to complain that a coming movie called “Unplanned” had been labeled in a knowledge panel as “propaganda,” according to a person familiar with the matter. The film is about a former Planned Parenthood director who had a change of heart and became pro-life.

After the Heritage Foundation complained to a contact at Google, the company apologized and removed “propaganda” from the description, that person said.

Google’s Ms. Levin said the change “was not the result of pressure from an outside group, it was a violation of the feature’s policy.”

On the auto-complete feature, Google reached a confidential settlement in France in 2012 with several outside groups that had complained it was anti-Semitic that Google was suggesting the French word for “Jew” when searchers typed in the name of several prominent politicians. Google agreed to “algorithmically mitigate” such suggestions as part of a pact that barred the parties from disclosing its terms, according to people familiar with the matter.

In recent years, Google changed its auto-complete algorithms to remove “sensitive and disparaging remarks.” The policy, now detailed on its website, says that Google doesn’t allow predictions that may be related to “harassment, bullying, threats, inappropriate sexualization, or predictions that expose private or sensitive information.”

GOOGLE HAS BECOME more open about its moderation of auto-complete but still doesn’t disclose its use of blacklists. Kevin Gibbs, who created auto-complete in 2004 when he was a Google engineer, originally developed the list of terms that wouldn’t be suggested, even if they were the most popular queries that independent algorithms would normally supply.

For example, if a user searched “Britney Spears”—a popular search on Google at the time—Mr. Gibbs didn’t want a piece of human anatomy or the description of a sex act to appear when someone started typing the singer’s name. The unfiltered results were “kind of horrible,” Mr. Gibbs said in an interview.

He said deciding what should and shouldn’t be on the list was challenging. “It was uncomfortable, and I felt a lot of pressure,” said Mr. Gibbs, who worked on auto-complete for about a year, and left the company in 2012. “I wanted to make sure it represented the world fairly and didn’t leave out any groups.”

Google still maintains lists of phrases and terms that are manually blacklisted from auto-complete, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company internally has a “clearly articulated set of policies” about what terms or phrases might be blacklisted in auto-complete, and that it follows those rules, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Blacklists also affect the results in organic search and Google News, as well as other search products, such as Web answers and knowledge panels, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google has said in congressional testimony it doesn’t use blacklists. Asked in a 2018 hearing whether Google had ever blacklisted a “company, group, individual or outlet…for political reasons,” Karan Bhatia, Google’s vice president of public policy, responded: “No, ma’am, we don’t use blacklists/whitelists to influence our search results,” according to the transcript.

Ms. Levin said those statements were related to blacklists targeting political groups, which she said the company doesn’t keep.

Google’s first blacklists date to the early 2000s, when the company made a list of spam sites that it removed from its index, one of those people said. This means the sites wouldn’t appear in search results.

Engineers known as “maintainers” are authorized to make and approve changes to blacklists. It takes at least two people to do this; one person makes the change, while a second approves it, according to the person familiar with the matter.

The Journal reviewed a draft policy document from August 2018 that outlines how Google employees should implement an anti-misinformation blacklist aimed at blocking certain publishers from appearing in Google News and other search products. The document says engineers should focus on “a publisher misrepresenting their ownership or web properties” and having “deceptive content”—that is, sites that actively aim to mislead—as opposed to those that have inaccurate content.

“The purpose of the blacklist will be to bar the sites from surfacing in any Search feature or news product sites,” the document states.

Ms. Levin said Google does “not manually determine the order of any search result.” She said sites that don’t adhere to Google News “inclusion policies” are “not eligible to appear on news surfaces or in information boxes in Search.”

SOME INDIVIDUALS and companies said changes made by the company seem ad hoc, or inconsistent. People familiar with the matter said Google increasingly will make manual or algorithmic changes that aren’t acknowledged publicly in order to maintain that it isn’t affected by outside pressure.

“It’s very convenient for us to say that the algorithms make all the decisions,” said one former Google executive.

In March 2017, Google updated the guidelines it gives contractors who evaluate search results, instructing them for the first time to give low-quality ratings to sites “created with the sole purpose of promoting hate or violence against a group of people”—something that would help adjust Google algorithms to lower those sites in search.

The next year, the company broadened the guidance to any pages that promote such hate or violence, even if it isn’t the page’s sole purpose and even if it is “expressed in polite or even academic-sounding language.”

Google has resisted entirely removing some content that outsiders complained should be blocked. In May 2018, Ignacio Wenley Palacios, a Spain-based lawyer working for the Lawfare Project, a nonprofit that funds litigation to protect Jewish people, asked Google to remove an anti-Semitic article lauding a German Holocaust denier posted on a Spanish-language neo-Nazi blog.

The company declined. In an email to Mr. Wenley Palacios, lawyers for Google contended that “while such content is detestable” it isn’t “manifestly illegal” in Spain.

Mr. Wenley Palacios then filed a lawsuit, but in the spring of this year, before the suit could be heard, he said, Google lawyers told him the company was changing its policy on such removals in Spain.

According to Mr. Wenley Palacios, the lawyers said the firm would now remove from searches conducted in Spain any links to Holocaust denial and other content that could hurt vulnerable minorities, once they are pointed out to the company. The results would still be accessible outside of Spain. He said both sides agreed to dismiss the case.

Google’s Ms. Levin described the action as a “legal removal” in accordance with local law. Holocaust denial isn’t illegal in Spain, but if it is coupled with an intent to spread hate, it can fall under Spanish criminal law banning certain forms of hate speech.

“Google used to say, ‘We don’t approve of the content, but that’s what it is,’ ” Mr. Wenley Palacios said. “That has changed dramatically.”

Business Model

Google’s search results page has changed over the years, becoming much more ad-heavy.

Health policy consultant Greg Williams said he helped lead a campaign to push Google to make changes that would stifle misleading results for queries such as “rehab.”

At the time, in 2017, addiction centers with spotty records were constantly showing up in search results, typically the first place family members and addicts go in search of help.

Google routed Diane Hentges several times over the last year to call centers as she desperately researched drug addiction treatment centers for her 22-year-old son, she said.

Each time she called one of the facilities listed on Google, a customer-service representative would ask for her financial information, but the representatives weren’t seemingly attached to any legitimate company.

“If you look at a place on Google, it sends you straight to a call center,” Ms. Hentges said, adding that parents who are struggling with a child with addiction “will do anything to get our child healthy. We’ll believe anything.”

After intense lobbying by Mr. Williams and others, Google changed its ad policy around such queries. But addiction industry officials also noticed a significant change to Google search results. Many searches for “rehab” or related terms began returning the website for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the national help hotline run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as the top result.

Google never acknowledged the change. Ms. Levin said that “resources are not listed because of any type of partnership” and that “we have algorithmic solutions designed to prioritize authoritative resources (including official hotlines) in our results for queries like these as well as for suicide and self-harm queries.”

A spokesman for SAMHSA said the agency had a partnership with Google.

Google’s search algorithms have been a major focus of Hollywood in its effort to fight pirated TV shows and movies.

Studios “saw this as the potential death knell of their business,” said Dan Glickman, chairman and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America from 2004 to 2010. The association has been a public critic of Google. “A hundred million dollars to market a major movie could be thrown away if someone could stream it illegally online.”

Google received a record 1.6 million requests to remove web pages for copyright issues last year, according to the company’s published Transparency Report and a Journal analysis. Those requests pertained to more than 740 million pages, about 12 times the number of web pages it was asked to take down in 2012.

A decade ago, in concession to the industry, Google removed “download” from its auto-complete suggestions after the name of a movie or TV show, so that at least it wouldn’t be encouraging searches for pirated content.

In 2012, it applied a filter to search results that would lower the ranking of sites that received a large number of piracy complaints under U.S. copyright law. That effectively pushed many pirate sites off the front page of results for general searches for movies or music, although it still showed them when a user specifically typed in the pirate site names.

In recent months the industry has gotten more cooperation from Google on piracy in search results than at any point in the organization’s history, according to people familiar with the matter.

“Google is under great cosmic pressure, as is Facebook,” Mr. Glickman said. “These are companies that are in danger of being federally regulated to an extent that they never anticipated.”

Mr. Pichai, who became CEO of Google in 2015, is more willing to entertain complaints about the search results from outside parties than Messrs. Page and Brin, the co-founders, according to people familiar with his leadership.

Google’s Ms. Levin said Mr. Pichai’s “style of engaging and listening to feedback has not shifted. He has always been very open to feedback.”

CRITICISM ALLEGING political bias in Google’s search results has sharpened since the 2016 election.

Interest groups from the right and left have besieged Google with questions about content displayed in search results and about why the company’s algorithms returned certain information over others.

Google appointed an executive in Washington, Max Pappas, to handle complaints from conservative groups, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Pappas works with Google engineers on changes to search when conservative viewpoints aren’t being represented fairly, according to interest groups interviewed by the Journal, although that is just one part of his job.

“Conservatives need people they can go to at these companies,” said Dan Gainor, an executive at the conservative Media Research Center, which has complained about various issues to Google.

Google also appointed at least one other executive in Washington, Chanelle Hardy, to work with outside liberal groups, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ms. Levin said both positions have existed for many years. She said in general Google believes it’s “the responsible thing to do” to understand feedback from the groups and said Google’s algorithms and policies don’t attempt to make any judgment based on the political leanings of a website.

Mr. Pappas declined to comment, and Ms. Hardy didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Over the past year, abortion-rights groups have complained about search results that turned up the websites of what are known as “crisis pregnancy centers,” organizations that counsel women against having abortions, according to people familiar with the matter.

One of the complaining organizations was Naral Pro-Choice America, which tracks the activities of anti-abortion groups through its opposition research department, said spokeswoman Kristin Ford.

Naral complained to Google and other tech platforms that some of the ads, posts and search results from crisis pregnancy centers are misleading and deceptive, she said. Some of the organizations claimed to offer abortions and then counseled women against it. “They do not disclose what their agenda is,” Ms. Ford said.

In June, Google updated its advertising policies related to abortion, saying that advertisers must state whether they provide abortions or not, according to its website. Ms. Ford said Naral wasn’t told in advance of the policy change.

Ms. Levin said Google didn’t implement any changes with regard to how crisis pregnancy centers rank for abortion queries.

The Journal tested the term “abortion” in organic search results over 17 days in July and August. Thirty-nine percent of all results on the first page had the hostname, the site of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nonprofit, abortion-rights organization.

By comparison, 14% of Bing’s first page of search results and 16% of DuckDuckGo’s first page of results were from Planned Parenthood.

Ms. Levin said Google doesn’t have any particular ranking implementations aimed at promoting Planned Parenthood.

The practice of creating blacklists for certain types of sites or searches has fueled cries of political bias from some Google engineers and right-wing publications that said they have viewed portions of the blacklists. Some of the websites Google appears to have targeted in Google News were conservative sites and blogs, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. In one partial blacklist reviewed by the Journal, some conservative and right-wing websites, including The Gateway Pundit and The United West, were included on a list of hundreds of websites that wouldn’t appear in news or featured products, although they could appear in organic search results.

Google has said repeatedly it doesn’t make decisions based on politics, and current and former employees told the Journal they haven’t seen evidence of political bias. And yet, they said, Google’s shifting policies on interference—and its lack of transparency about them—inevitably force employees to become arbiters of what is acceptable, a dilemma that opens the door to charges of bias or favoritism.

Google’s Ms. Levin declined to comment.

DEMANDS FROM GOVERNMENTS for changes have grown rapidly since 2016.

From 2010 to 2018, Google fielded such requests from countries including the U.S. to remove 685,000 links from what Google calls web search. The requests came from courts or other authorities that said the links broke local laws or should be removed for other reasons.

Nearly 78% of those removal requests have been since the beginning of 2016, according to reports that Google publishes on its website. Google’s ultimate actions on those requests weren’t disclosed.

Russia has been by far the most prolific, demanding the removal of about 255,000 links from search last year, three-quarters of all government requests for removal from Google search in that period, the data show. Nearly all of the country’s requests came under an information-security law Russia put into effect in late 2017, according to a Journal examination of disclosures in a database run by the Berkman Klein Center.

Google said the Russian law doesn’t allow it to disclose which URLs were requested to be removed. A person familiar with the matter said the removal demands are for content ruled illegal in Russia for a variety of reasons, such as for promoting drug use or encouraging suicide.

Requests can include demands to remove links to information the government defines as extremist, which can be used to target political opposition, the person said.

Google, whose staff reviews the requests, at times declines those that appear focused on political opposition, the person said, adding that in those cases, it tries not to draw attention to its decisions to avoid provoking Russian regulators.

The approach has led to stiff internal debate. On one side, some Google employees say that the company shouldn’t cooperate at all with takedown requests from countries such as Russia or Turkey. Others say it is important to follow the laws of countries where they are based.

“There is a real question internally about whether a private company should be making these calls,” the person said.

Google’s Ms. Levin said, “Maximizing access to information has always been a core principle of Search, and that hasn’t changed.”

Google’s culture of publicly resisting demands to change results has diminished, current and former employees said. A few years ago, the company dismantled a global team focused on free-speech issues that, among other things, publicized the company’s legal battles to fight changes to search results, in part because Google had lost several of those battles in court, according to a person familiar with the change.

“Free expression was no longer a winner,” the person said.

Updated: 11-19-2019

Bitcoin’s ‘Demise’? Google, Bailed-Out Citi Unveil Checking Accounts

Another FAANG company has its sights on financial services — this time it’s Google, as Forbes reported on Nov. 16, polemically claiming this could “kill Bitcoin.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Google had revealed plans — devised under a project code-named Cache — to launch consumer checking accounts in partnership with Citigroup.
Lessons “learned”

For cryptocurrency veterans, the inauspicious history of Google’s choice of banking partner will not go unremarked: on the eve of the 2008 global financial crisis, Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince was still telling journalists that “as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

The ailing, sprawling titan Citigroup would be revealed as an institution with one of the most toxic balance sheets in the industry: “by the summer of 2007, Citigroup alone was guaranteed $92.7 billion in ABCP [asset-backed commercial paper], enough to wipe out its entire Tier 1 capital,” as the historian Adam Tooze has noted in his history of the crisis.

Bailing out Citi — and salvaging the wider, ailing and systemically dangerous banking sector — would later force the Federal Reserve to undertake colossal liquidity actions as a “global lender of last resort” and to introduce regulation firmly entrenching the interdependence of the financial sector and government.

At the time, as Tooze writes, Sheila Bair of the FDIC pointedly remarked that certain of the Fed’s subsequent, more intrusive actions seemed little more than “a smokescreen put up to hide a bailout of Citigroup” — whose collapse could not be countenanced in the aftermath of Lehman.
FAANG snoops

As the WSJ noted in its coverage, tech firms such as Google view financial services as a conduit to getting “closer to their users” and acquiring highly valuable data on their transactions and economic behavior.

A McKinsey & Co. survey of consumers cited by the WSJ revealed that 58% of respondents said they would trust Google’s financial products — as compared with 35% for Facebook, 56% for Apple and 65% for Amazon.

Google has claimed it doesn’t use its existing Google Pay data — a service that counted 11 million U.S. users in 2018, according to Forbes — for advertising purposes and that it doesn’t share that data with third parties.

According to WSJ’s report, Google’s project with Citigroup will aim to foreground financial institutions’ brands instead of Google’s — and leave the compliance and financial “plumbing” to the banks.

Google executive Caesar Sengupta told the WSJ — in an apparent attempt to distinguish the project from initiatives like Facebook’s Libra — that:

“Our approach is going to be to partner deeply with banks and the financial system. It may be the slightly longer path, but it’s more sustainable.”

Legacy Deaths

Forbes’ polemical argument that Google’s foray into digital finance will “kill Bitcoin” has therefore been scorned by figures in the cryptocurrency sector, all too aware of the issues associated with institutional intermediation, data-privacy and digital security. As Bitcoin educator Stephen Cole has quipped:

“A Google checking account threatens Bitcoin about as much as a new post office threatens email.”

The Citigroup partnership isn’t the first Google story to prompt the bell-ringers of Bitcoin’s purportedly imminent death in recent weeks: Google is reported to have recently achieved quantum supremacy, sparking some speculation as to how future-proof and resistant the cryptography of the Bitcoin blockchain will prove to be.

Yet, as Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin has commented of the perceived threat:

My one-sentence impression of recent quantum supremacy stuff so far is that it is to real quantum computing what hydrogen bombs are to nuclear fusion. Proof that a phenomenon and the capability to extract power from it exist, but still far from directed use toward useful things.

Buterin’s argument is shared by Andreas Antonopoulos, who has characterized the danger of quantum for Bitcoin as “zip, bupkis nada.”

Updated: 11-21-2019

Google, Facebook Take On Banking Duties, Crypto Shrugged To The Side?

A peculiar phenomenon is occurring within the economic sector. In fact, it’s been transpiring over the past few decades. After the rise of the internet and the development of effective communications, the financial industry underwent a technical reconstruction. Those formerly disbarred due to a lack of capital found refuge in this revolution. Internet brokers and e-commerce start-ups with little more than a “.com” suffix proliferated.

Some even threatened to subvert entrenched financial institutions. Among those attempting a banking coup was Confinity — now Paypal — one of the first online payment processors. Unbeknownst to most, financial disruption was the firm’s original intent. Speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum in February, Paypal co-founder, Luke Nosek, recalled the company’s impetuous venture:

“The initial mission of PayPal was to create a global currency that was independent of interference by these, you know, corrupt cartels of banks and governments that were debasing their currencies.”

The disruption of the financial sector was always assured, and when it came, it left banks with two options: adapt or die. Ultimately, Paypal’s grand plan failed, and the firm became intrinsically linked to the institutions it hoped to oppose. Nevertheless, the disruption born in the 90s never really ceased.

History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, and this very phenomenon is recurring again today. Giving banks a veritable run for their money this time around is Bitcoin (BTC) and its novel underlying protocol, blockchain. In fact, the entire decentralized ecosystem is slowly but surely staging a financial insurrection.

Facebook’s Flight Of Fancy

But it isn’t just start-ups and disruptors looking to challenge the status quo of traditional banking. Behemoth tech firm Facebook is also leading the charge against the financial sector.

On Nov. 12, the relatively unanticipated Facebook Pay was launched. An announcement from the firm unveiled a cross-platform fiat-based payment system for Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The sudden reveal had a few scratching their heads.

For months, Facebook had been peddling its highly maligned cryptocurrency venture, Libra. Promising cheap, global remittances in an instant, the concept took some heavy flak from all sides.

Many within the cryptocurrency community shunned what they deemed a derivative attempt to solve something that Bitcoin already fixes, while regulatory authorities worldwide coalesced in opposition to what looked like an endeavor to undermine the financial system.

Libra’s early backers even left en masse in a quasi-revolt led by Visa and MasterCard. And yet, here is Facebook releasing a payment system, which, at first glance, seems eerily similar to the Libra initiative.

It looked as if the regulatory reverberations had finally taken their toll. Facebook had capitulated against pressure, deciding instead to deliver a tried-and-tested, bureaucracy free payments system like any other. Just as Paypal yielded from their philanthropic dreams of a people’s currency, has Facebook also thrown in the towel?

However, it may not be as cut-and-dry as that. Facebook notes that Facebook Pay — for now at least — will be localized within the United States’ jurisdiction only. This means that Libra still carries a valuable use case on a global scale. Moreover, the initial press release from Facebook alludes that Libra is still alive and well. Within the announcement, Deborah Liu, Facebook’s vice president of marketplace and commerce, relayed the distinction between the two ventures:

“Facebook Pay is built on existing financial infrastructure and partnerships, and is separate from the Calibra wallet which will run on the Libra network.”

So if Libra is still kicking, why the sudden transition to Facebook Pay? Was the hubbub around Libra simply a trojan horse for a more palatable foray into finance?

To answer this, Jonathan Kelfer, CEO of Velocity Markets, told Cointelgraph that it is unlikely that Libra was just a rouse:

“FB Pay is in line with existing services found outside the United States, such as AliPay. Clearly, Facebook sees a strong user value proposition for this means of payment and is looking to leverage it within their ecosystem. With FB Pay, users would inherently be restricted to their local currencies, lessening the potential for cross border payments and a more stable reserve. Conversely, Libra would act as a true global currency.”

Google Enters The Financial Fray

Facebook isn’t the only tech giant looking to capitalize on the fintech revolution. Precisely one day after Facebook Pay was announced, it was reported that Google was planning its own banking enterprise.

According to the report, a partnership with Citigroup and the Stanford Federal Credit Union will see the search monolith offer checking accounts via the Google Pay app. Taking an example from Facebook’s newfound rhetoric, Google remarked that the initiative would foster the growing digital ecosystem.

Codenamed “Cache,” the so-called smart checking account is already being lauded as the “future of banking,” as well as the latest “Bitcoin killer.” Undoubtedly, with Facebook testing the realm of finance, Google felt the need to claim a stake of its own.

However, rather than fight a losing battle and compete with existing financial institutions, Google is aiming to get them onside — a tactic that will likely work in the company’s favor. The backlash Facebook suffered at the hands of global regulators was enough to make any tech firm looking to challenge the status quo think twice.
The new normal

FAANG companies — the acronym coined for high-performing tech company stocks such as Facebook and Google — have enjoyed a thriving oligopoly within the industry for decades. Now, their collective eyes focusing on financial enterprises raises the question — why? Kelfer proposes that this may be an attempt to hoard a range of data they’ve not had access to:

“Big tech is in the business of collecting and distributing information. Given their large ecosystems, they are likely to want to see frictions reduced in any way possible, including transactions. The data that can be collected from spending habits would also be valuable.”

Intriguingly, tech-finance migration seems to be in line with a growing trend. A recent report from CoinShares revealed that social networks are fast becoming the new payment networks of choice.

Mobile payment platforms such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, Amazon Pay and of course, Facebook’s own budding initiatives boast an inconceivable 6.4 billion active users between them. Moreover, nearly 40% of internet users prefer these modes of payment. Of these companies, only Facebook is truly harnessing the potential of digital payments and blockchain.
What about crypto?

China’s incipient central bank digital currency, or CBDC, laid dormant from 2014 until early this year, its revival corresponded with Libra’s whitepaper. It’s been suggested that fears of capital flight via Facebook’s omnipresent currency led to a considerable increase in the CBDC’s pace of development.

Coincidentally, halfway across the world, the European Central Bank was similarly reviving plans for a financial overhaul. According to ECB board member Benoit Coeure, concerns that Libra would pose a risk to the financial sector provided a “wake-up call” for the bank.

With alarm bells ringing, a slumbering ECB project known as TIPS was awoken. Launched last year, TIPS, or a Target Instant Payment Settlement service, aimed to enable real-time payments within the Eurozone. For Coeure, however, this wasn’t enough — instead, he urged the ECB to roll out a CBDC of their own.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. According to a report from the Bank of international settlements, 70% of banks are either engaged in a CBDC or are about to start work on one.

With the threat of innovation knocking on their doors, the world’s banks are slowly taking things into their own hands. So why is Google sticking to the tried and tested methods of banking rather than harnessing digital payments and innovating further?

A former software engineer at Google himself, Kelfer suggested that it may be because banking isn’t within the remit of the tech giants, “True investment banking, underwriting, securitization, and many of the other hallmarks of Wall St would fall well outside the core competencies of big tech.” He also noted that even with Facebook’s attempt to go against the grain, it might not be too successful:

“Libra has a very low likelihood of becoming a ‘global reserve’ in that central banks already hold a basket of currencies and interest bearing instruments directly and manage these positions in accordance with their mandates and local economic conditions. Central banks need to retrain control over these allocations, which wouldn’t be possible with Libra.”

Arguably, there is a distinct prejudice when it comes to digital currencies. A prime example was as soon as Libra’s whitepaper launched, questions were raised about the currency’s anti-competitive nature.

The European Commission’s executive vice president for digital,Margrethe Vestager, even accused Facebook of attempting to create an isolated financial system. Ironically, that is the very basis of Bitcoin: a decentralized economic system free of intermediaries.

Much like Paypal’s inceptive goal, Bitcoin’s very purpose was to oppose the banking industry. Birthed from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Bitcoin’s defiant intent was coded into the genesis block by its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto.

So, while Facebook struggles to surmount the bureaucracy of building a new system and Google tries to update the existing one, for many, Bitcoin and the wider crypto industry already fix the issues that big tech is looking to innovate upon.

Updated: 12-15-2019

Rule Change Could Help Tech Firms Advance Into Banking

Potential change in deposit classifications could have big implications for future of bank-tech partnerships.

Tech companies’ and banks’ tussle over the future of finance may be getting a bit more intense.

Technology companies are moving into retail banking by offering financial products under their name. In almost every case, though, there is a partner bank behind the tech firm.

Often that takes the form of a bank providing insured deposit accounts to the partner arrangement. That may be one thing that emerges from the discussions between Citigroup and Alphabet’s Google, for example. It is also how fintech firms such as Betterment or Social Finance can offer deposit insurance for their offerings without being banks themselves.

What exactly that means for the partner bank is complicated, however. Yes, it is a way for a bank to gather deposits and earn more fees. But not all deposits are created equal. The most economic form of deposits for a bank are “core” deposits. These are deposits that regulators believe will mostly stick with a bank even in times of crisis. Brokered deposits, meanwhile, are considered a bigger flight risk. These are customer deposits that come into the bank via some third party and could leave en masse via that same party.

At times pejoratively known as “hot money,” brokered deposits are more expensive for banks to hold. Banks must keep more of their assets highly liquid if they have brokered deposits and they typically must pay higher deposit-insurance premiums to the FDIC.

How a deposit’s status is determined isn’t always cut-and-dried under the law, says John Popeo, a principal at the Gallatin Group who consults with banks. It often involves discussions with an examiner to convince them that a deposit relationship through an intermediary—say, a wealth manager that sweeps customer assets into a deposit account, or a prepaid account such as a digital wallet used to make mobile payments—functions like a core deposit.

As more of these fintech partnerships emerge, investors in both tech firms and banks will need to ask a lot of questions: Will the deposits be considered brokered? If they are, does that mean the tech company basically controls the relationship with the customer? Or, if they aren’t brokered, does the bank then pay more to the tech firm to bring in such stable funding?

Some of the most intense competition might not be between banks and technology companies but among banks for who gets these deposits. Several smaller and regional banks have been partners to tech firms. Apple works with Green Dot’s bank for Apple Cash, for example.

Often, tech companies have been able to get better deals with smaller banks, said Mr. Popeo, though it also depends on that bank’s own funding, liquidity and regulatory situation. But Citigroup’s discussions with Google show that big banks see a role here, too.

Last week, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Jelena McWilliams said that the agency now aims to modernize the classification of brokered deposits to account for changes in technology and how many consumers use tech to get access to banking, including the rise of “third-party fintech apps.”

One of the FDIC’s goals is to clarify that existing partnerships that constitute a direct relationship won’t result in a brokered deposit. Another is to narrow the definition of who is a broker to exclude entities that aren’t primarily in deposit-moving business; tech companies have argued that should exclude them.

Many banks would benefit from having more deposits counted as core, but the change could also shift some of the balance of power to tech partners. Instead of delivering costly deposits that must thread definitional needs, partnerships might become an even bigger channel for cheap, low-cost deposits. A more liberal definition also could help smaller banks because big banks’ ability to bear the higher costs of brokered deposits would be less of an advantage.

Tech firms might never be able to offer banking services directly. Changing the brokered-deposit rules could be the next best thing.

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