Google outage could impact millions

Google's recent outage reminds us how central that company is to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Is that too much power in the hands of one company?

Correction, 10:27 a.m. PDT: This story incorrectly described Google as a private company. It is public.

As far as I know, nothing tragic happened as a result of Thursday's Google outage but it does remind us how important Google has become to many people's lives and livelihoods.

In addition to search, millions of people rely on Google for their e-mail, calendar, and other Web-based applications including word processing and spreadsheet. With its Google Health service, the company has also branched into health care record keeping, making me worry that someday an outage could literally be life threatening.

There is also a financial impact. A lot of people and businesses depend on Google for all or part of their income. I don't know the exact size of the "Google economy" but if Google AdSense (Google's advertising program that serves ads on Web sites ranging from obscure bloggers to major media companies) were to go down, Web sites that display those ads would lose revenue as would businesses that depend on those ads to generate sales. Even search plays a critical role in plenty of people's financial well-being. Where a site comes up during a Google search for certain words can have an enormous impact on traffic and revenue.

Perhaps more so than the banks and auto companies that are getting government bailouts, Google has become "too big to fail." While it's not in jeopardy of any financial collapse, this latest outage reminds us that it's not invulnerable to being taken down by technical glitches or possibly even sabotage. The reason we worry about big companies like General Motors failing isn't just because of the impact on the company's stockholders, employees, or even customers, but on the thousands of businesses whose well being is tied to that of the giant automaker. If GM is a giant, Google is gargantuan, especially in terms of the number of people who make all or part of their living on activities that are dependent Google.

On its blog, Google said that the outage, which went on for about an hour, affected 14 percent of its users. That's millions of people. I'm not sure how much money was lost during this period, but I'm sure it was substantial. A longer lasting or more widespread outage, which is hardly out of the question, could have a severe economic impact.

I'm by no means suggesting that Google should be regulated by government, but I do think that it's gotten to the point where it has become a vital part of our infrastructure--as important as our airports, highways, and utilities. That's a mighty big responsibility for a single public company.

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